The food we eat and the water we drink leave a chemical signature locked into our bones, in the form of different atomic variations of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. By identifying them, scientists can tell what a person was eating and drinking while the bone was forming. Kennewick Man’s bones were perplexing. Even though his grave lies 300 miles inland from the sea, he ate none of the animals that abounded in the area. On the contrary, for the last 20 or so years of his life he seems to have lived almost exclusively on a diet of marine animals, such as seals, sea lions and fish. Equally baffling was the water he drank: It was cold, glacial meltwater from a high altitude. Nine thousand years ago, the closest marine coastal environment where one could find glacial meltwater of this type was Alaska. The conclusion: Kennewick Man was a traveler from the far north. Perhaps he traded fine knapping stones over hundreds of miles.
Although he came from distant lands, he was not an unwelcome visitor. He appears to have died among people who treated his remains with care and respect. While the researchers say they don’t know how he died—yet—Owsley did determine that he was deliberately buried in an extended, prone position, faceup, the head slightly higher than the feet, with the chin pressed on the chest, in a grave that was about two and a half feet deep. Owsley deduced this information partly by mapping the distribution of carbonate crust on the bones, using a magnifying lens. Such a crust is heavier on the underside of buried bones, betraying which surfaces were down and which up. The bones showed no sign of scavenging or gnawing and were deliberately buried beneath the topsoil zone. From analyzing algae deposits and water-wear marks, the team determined which bones were washed out of the embankment first and which fell out last. Kennewick Man’s body had been buried with his left side toward the river and his head upstream.
The most poignant outcome? The researchers brought Kennewick Man’s features back to life. This process is nothing like the computerized restoration seen in the television show Bones. To turn a skull into a face is a time-consuming, handcrafted procedure, a marriage of science and art. Skeletal anatomists, modelmakers, forensic and figurative sculptors, a photographic researcher and a painter toiled many months to do it.
The first stage involved plotting dozens of points on a cast of the skull and marking the depth of tissue at those points. (Forensic anatomists had collected tissue-depth data over the years, first by pushing pins into the faces of cadavers, and later by using ultrasound and CT scans.) With the points gridded out, a forensic sculptor layered clay on the skull to the proper depths.
The naked clay head was then taken to StudioEIS in Brooklyn, which specializes in reconstructions for museums. There, sculptors aged his face, adding wrinkles and a touch of weathering, and put in the scar from the forehead injury. Using historic photographs of Ainu and Polynesians as a reference, they sculpted the fine, soft-tissue details of the lips, nose and eyes, and gave him a facial expression—a resolute, purposeful gaze consistent with his osteobiography as a hunter, fisherman and long-distance traveler. They added a beard like those commonly found among the Ainu. As for skin tone, a warm brown was chosen, to account for his natural color deepened by the harsh effects of a life lived outdoors. To prevent too much artistic license from creeping into the reconstruction, every stage of the work was reviewed and critiqued by physical anthropologists.
“I look at him every day,” Owsley said to me. “I’ve spent ten years with this man trying to better understand him. He’s an ambassador from that ancient time period. And man, did he have a story.”
Today, the bones remain in storage at the Burke Museum, and the tribes continue to believe that Kennewick Man is their ancestor. They want the remains back for reburial. The corps, which still controls the skeleton, denied Owsley’s request to conduct numerous tests, including a histological examination of thin, stained sections of bone to help fix Kennewick Man’s age. Chemical analyses on a lone tooth would enable the scientists to narrow the search for his homeland by identifying what he ate and drank as a child. A tooth would also be a good source of DNA. Biomolecular science is advancing so rapidly that within five to ten years it may be possible to know what diseases Kennewick Man suffered from and what caused his death.
Today’s scientists still have questions for this skeleton, and future scientists will no doubt have new ones. Kennewick Man has more to tell.