The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets

He’s the most important human skeleton ever found in North America—and here, for the first time, is his story

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because Kennewick Man’s remains are so old and the information about his era is so limited, the record does not permit the Secretary [of the Interior] to conclude reasonably that Kennewick Man shares special and significant genetic or cultural features with presently existing indigenous tribes, people, or cultures.

During the trial, the presiding magistrate judge, John Jelderks, had noted for the record that the corps on multiple occasions misled or deceived the court. He found that the government had indeed acted in “bad faith” and awarded attorney’s fees of $2,379,000 to Schneider and his team.

“At the bare minimum,” Schneider told me, “this lawsuit cost the taxpayers $5 million.”

Owsley and the collaborating scientists presented a plan of study to the corps, which was approved after several years. And so, almost ten years after the skeleton was found, the scientists were given 16 days to examine it. They did so in July of 2005 and February of 2006.

From these studies, presented in superabundant detail in the new book, we now have an idea who Kennewick Man was, how he lived, what he did and where he traveled. We know how he was buried and then came to light. Kennewick Man, Owsley believes, belongs to an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans. The few remains we have of these early people show they had longer, narrower skulls with smaller faces. These mysterious people have long since disappeared.

***

To get to Owsley’s office at the National Museum of Natural History, you must negotiate a warren of narrow corridors illuminated by fluorescent strip lighting and lined with specimen cases. When his door opens, you are greeted by Kennewick Man. The reconstruction of his head is striking—rugged, handsome and weather-beaten, with long hair and a thick beard. A small scar puckers his left forehead. His determined gaze is powerful enough to stop you as you enter. This is a man with a history.

Kennewick Man is surrounded on all sides by tables laid out with human skeletons. Some are articulated on padded counters, while others rest in metal trays, the bones arranged as precisely as surgeon’s tools before an operation. These bones represent the forensic cases Owsley is currently working on.

“This is a woman,” he said, pointing to the skeleton to the left of Kennewick Man. “She’s young. She was a suicide, not found for a long time.” He gestured to the right. “And this is a homicide. I know there was physical violence. She has a fractured nose, indicating a blow to the face. The detective working the case thinks that if we can get a positive ID, the guy they have will talk. And we have a positive ID.” A third skeleton belonged to a man killed while riding an ATV, his body not found for six months. Owsley was able to assure the man’s relatives that he died instantly and didn’t suffer. “In doing this work,” he said, “I hope to speak for the person who can no longer speak.”

Owsley is a robust man, of medium height, 63 years old, graying hair, glasses; curiously, he has the same purposeful look in his eyes as Kennewick Man. He is not into chitchat. He grew up in Lusk, Wyoming, and he still radiates a frontier sense of determination; he is the kind of person who will not respond well to being told what he can’t do. He met Susan on the playground when he was 7 years old and remains happily married. He lives in the country, on a farm where he grows berries, has an orchard and raises bees. He freely admits he is “obsessive” and “will work like a dog” until he finishes a project. “I thought this was normal,” he said, “until it was pointed out to me it wasn’t.” I asked if he was stubborn, as evidenced by the lawsuit, but he countered: “I would say I’m driven—by curiosity.” He added, “Sometimes you come to a skeleton that wants to talk to you, that whispers to you, I want to tell my story. And that was Kennewick Man.”

A vast amount of data was collected in the 16 days Owsley and colleagues spent with the bones. Twenty-two scientists scrutinized the almost 300 bones and fragments. Led by Kari Bruwelheide, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, they first reassembled the fragile skeleton so they could see it as a whole. They built a shallow box, added a layer of fine sand, and covered that with black velvet; then Bruwelheide laid out the skeleton, bone by bone, shaping the sand underneath to cradle each piece. Now the researchers could address such questions as Kennewick Man’s age, height, weight, body build, general health and fitness, and injuries. They could also tell whether he was deliberately buried, and if so, the position of his body in the grave.

Next the skeleton was taken apart, and certain key bones studied intensively. The limb bones and ribs were CT-scanned at the University of Washington Medical Center. These scans used far more radiation than would be safe for living tissue, and as a result they produced detailed, three-dimensional images that allowed the bones to be digitally sliced up any which way. With additional CT scans, the team members built resin models of the skull and other important bones. They made a replica from a scan of the spearpoint in the hip.

As work progressed, a portrait of Kennewick Man emerged. He does not belong to any living human population. Who, then, are his closest living relatives? Judging from the shape of his skull and bones, his closest living relatives appear to be the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, a remote archipelago 420 miles southeast of New Zealand, as well as the mysterious Ainu people of Japan.

“Just think of Polynesians,” said Owsley.

Not that Kennewick Man himself was Polynesian. This is not Kon-Tiki in reverse; humans had not reached the Pacific Islands in his time period. Rather, he was descended from the same group of people who would later spread out over the Pacific and give rise to modern-day Polynesians. These people were maritime hunter-gatherers of the north Pacific coast; among them were the ancient Jōmon, the original inhabitants of the Japanese Islands. The present-day Ainu people of Japan are thought to be descendants of the Jōmon. Nineteenth-century photographs of the Ainu show individuals with light skin, heavy beards and sometimes light-colored eyes.

Jōmon culture first arose in Japan at least 12,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 16,000 years ago, when the landmasses were still connected to the mainland. These seafarers built boats out of sewn planks of wood. Outstanding mariners and deep-water fishermen, they were among the first people to make fired pottery.

The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to an alternative view of the peopling of North America. It, along with other evidence, suggests that the Jōmon or related peoples were the original settlers of the New World. If correct, the conclusion upends the traditional view that the first Americans came through central Asia and walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down through an ice-free corridor into North America.

Sometime around 15,000 years ago, the new theory goes, coastal Asian groups began working their way along the shoreline of ancient Beringia—the sea was much lower then—from Japan and Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaska and beyond. This is not as crazy a journey as it sounds. As long as the voyagers were hugging the coast, they would have plenty of fresh water and food. Cold-climate coasts furnish a variety of animals, from seals and birds to fish and shellfish, as well as driftwood, to make fires. The thousands of islands and their inlets would have provided security and shelter. To show that such a sea journey was possible, in 1999 and 2000 an American named Jon Turk paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska following the route of the presumed Jōmon migration. Anthropologists have nicknamed this route the “Kelp Highway.”

“I believe these Asian coastal migrations were the first,” said Owsley. “Then you’ve got a later wave of the people who give rise to Indians as we know them today.”

What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”

Whether this new account of the peopling of North America will stand up as more evidence comes in is not yet known. The bones of a 13,000-year-old teenage girl recently discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico, for example, are adding to the discussion. James Chatters, the first archaeologist to study Kennewick and a participant in the full analysis, reported earlier this year, along with colleagues, that the girl’s skull appears to have features in common with that of Kennewick Man and other Paleo-Americans, but she also possesses specific DNA signatures suggesting she shares female ancestry with Native Americans.

Kennewick Man may still hold a key. The first effort to extract DNA from fragments of his bone failed, and the corps so far hasn’t allowed a better sample to be taken. A second effort to plumb the old fragments is underway at a laboratory in Denmark.

***

There’s a wonderful term used by anthropologists: “osteobiography,” the “biography of the bones.” Kennewick Man’s osteobiography tells a tale of an eventful life, which a newer radiocarbon analysis puts at having taken place 8,900 to 9,000 years ago. He was a stocky, muscular man about 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing about 160 pounds. He was right-handed. His age at death was around 40.

Anthropologists can tell from looking at bones what muscles a person used most, because muscle attachments leave marks in the bones: The more stressed the muscle, the more pronounced the mark. For example, Kennewick Man’s right arm and shoulder look a lot like a baseball pitcher’s. He spent a lot of time throwing something with his right hand, elbow bent—no doubt a spear. Kennewick Man once threw so hard, Owsley says, he fractured his glenoid rim—the socket of his shoulder joint. This is the kind of injury that puts a baseball pitcher out of action, and it would have made throwing painful. His left leg was stronger than his right, also a characteristic of right-handed pitchers, who arrest their forward momentum with their left leg. His hands and forearms indicate he often pinched his fingers and thumb together while tightly gripping a small object; presumably, then, he knapped his own spearpoints.

Kennewick Man spent a lot of time holding something in front of him while forcibly raising and lowering it; the researchers theorize he was hurling a spear downward into the water, as seal hunters do. His leg bones suggest he often waded in shallow rapids, and he had bone growths consistent with “surfer’s ear,” caused by frequent immersion in cold water. His knee joints suggest he often squatted on his heels. I like to think he might have been a storyteller, enthralling his audience with tales of far-flung travels.

Many years before Kennewick Man’s death, a heavy blow to his chest broke six ribs. Because he used his right hand to throw spears, five broken ribs on his right side never knitted together. This man was one tough dude.

The scientists also found two small depression fractures on his cranium, one on his forehead and the other farther back. These dents occur on about half of all ancient American skulls; what caused them is a mystery. They may have come from fights involving rock throwing, or possibly accidents involving the whirling of a bola. This ancient weapon consisted of two or more stones connected by a cord, which were whirled above the head and thrown at birds to entangle them. If you don’t swing a bola just right, the stones can whip around and smack you. Perhaps a youthful Kennewick Man learned how to toss a bola the hard way.

The most intriguing injury is the spearpoint buried in his hip. He was lucky: The spear, apparently thrown from a distance, barely missed the abdominal cavity, which would have caused a fatal wound. It struck him at a downward arc of 29 degrees. Given the bone growth around the embedded point, the injury occurred when he was between 15 and 20 years old, and he probably would not have survived if he had been left alone; the researchers conclude that Kennewick Man must have been with people who cared about him enough to feed and nurse him back to health. The injury healed well and any limp disappeared over time, as evidenced by the symmetry of his gluteal muscle attachments. There’s undoubtedly a rich story behind that injury. It might have been a hunting accident or a teenage game of chicken gone awry. It might have happened in a fight, attack or murder attempt.

Much to the scientists’ dismay, the corps would not allow the stone to be analyzed, which might reveal where it was quarried. “If we knew where that stone came from,” said Stanford, the Smithsonian anthropologist, “we’d have a pretty good idea of where that guy was when he was a young man.” A CT scan revealed that the point was about two inches long, three-quarters of an inch wide and about a quarter-inch thick, with serrated edges. In his analysis, Stanford wrote that while he thought Kennewick Man had probably received the injury in America, “an Asian origin of the stone is possible.”

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