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Thursday, August 29, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ancient Bones, Ancient Disputes -- Is Kennewick Skeleton `Asian' Or `European'?

Seattle Times Science Reporter

The discovery in Kennewick of a 9,000-year-old skeleton with a Caucasian-like skull and a spear point in its pelvis has electrified anthropologists, upset some Native Americans who want the bones reburied, and set up a potentially explosive argument over race, science and religion.

The controversy over the oldest complete skeleton found in Washington has dismayed James Chatters, a well-known Richland anthropologist and consultant previously employed by Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories.

He excavated the bones after their discovery July 28 in a Kennewick park on the Columbia River. On Tuesday, he said radio-carbon dating by the University of California at Riverside had established the remains are from sometime between 7265 B.C. and 7535 B.C.

The skeleton has a narrow, Caucasian skull and its 5-foot-9 height is unusually tall for the time. It is the latest of several finds during the past four years by anthropologists of a "paleo-Indian" group that appears distinct from the more rounded, Mongolian-type features found on other early Native Americans.

Scientists determine race by mathematically comparing measurements on several different points of the skull.

Chatters argued that discovery of the remains represents an exciting opportunity to produce new ideas about Native-American origins and the fundamental brotherhood of man.

"Here we have a world full of racism," Chatters said. "If we find out we're more closely related than we thought, hopefully that will influence how we treat each other."

But Armand Minthorn, a board member of Oregon's Umatilla Tribe, which is seeking immediate reburial, said that like many Native Americans he does not believe Indians originated from Asia. And scientific investigation of the bones collides with tribal religious beliefs that ancestors should be allowed to rest undisturbed, he added.

"How would you feel if we came into your cemetery and dug up your ancestors?" he asked.

To scientists, the discovery is powerful new evidence that Native Americans may have come to the Western Hemisphere over an Ice Age land bridge in at least two waves, an early one of people with more Caucasian features - who today extend from Europe to India - and a later one with rounder skulls typical of contemporary northern Asians.

The skeleton is European enough that Benton County officials first assumed that the remains, uncovered by a spring flood on the Columbia, were those of a white pioneer.

About 9,000 years ago, Chatters explained, there was a broad steppe south of the ice sheets extending from Europe across Asia to the Pacific, through which ancestors of today's races may have crisscrossed. Archaeologists have also recently found red-haired mummies several thousand years old in China.

Native-American skeletons found in Nevada in the 1940s and recently dated also show narrower skulls, which anthropologist D. Gentry Steele of Texas A&M University prefers to describe as "European-like features" typical among people in parts of South Asia.

"It indicates that the colonization of America was more complex than we thought," he said.

Steele suggested the narrow-headed people may have arrived sometime before 10,000 years ago, and those with rounder heads sometime after 9,000 years ago. Both crossed from Siberia to Alaska when the Ice Age lowered sea levels 200 feet. He cautioned, however, that timing and sequence are being hotly debated by anthropologists.

He does not believe the second group exterminated the first, but he does think today's Native Americans are descendants of both. "In some cases they would have fought, and in some cases they would have made love, not war," he said.

The Kennewick skeleton is exceeded in age in this state only by the 10,000-to 11,000-year-old bone fragments from the Marmes rock shelter site on the Snake River. The Kennewick specimen is unusual in its completeness, its height, and the fact there is an inch-wide stone spearhead embedded in the man's pelvis - some of the strongest evidence ever seen of human conflict that far in the past.

"You can almost see the guy trying to dodge it, or arching his back to duck and getting nailed anyway," Chatters said.

During his life, the man survived the spear thrust, a slash to the chest that resulted in his left arm being partly withered, a chipped right elbow and a chipped scapula. He finally succumbed to an infection at about age 50, the anthropologist said. The skull and pelvis have damage typical of a life-ending infection.

"He was a tough, tough guy," Chatters marveled. "He's telling me so many things it's unbelievable."

But some Native Americans view anthropological theories of an Asian origin as an insult to their own origin stories - science that seems to undercut their ancestral claims to the Western Hemisphere. They also believe too much archaeology in the past has amounted to little more than grave-robbing, with collectors profiting from ancestral remains.

Jurisdiction over the Kennewick skeleton is murky. It was found by two Tri-Cities men - Will Thomas, 21, and Dave Deacey, 20 - who were walking along the riverbank toward a hydroplane race and reported the find to the police.

The land is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and managed as a park by the city of Kennewick. Chatters did the excavation, and the bones are being held in the Benton County coroner's office. Both the Umatilla and the Colville reservations are asserting possible ancestry, since both represent aboriginal bands in the Kennewick vicinity.

Taking a slightly different position from the Umatilla are the Colville Confederated Tribes. "I think it is in the interest of understanding our own people to ask for a nondestructive analysis" of such remains, said Adeline Fredin, director of the tribal history and archaeology department. It can shed light on ancient diet, physique and habits, she explained.

But she, too, is skeptical of anthropological theories of Asian origin and wants the Corps of Engineers to give the decision over the fate of the skeleton to Native Americans.

Benton County Coroner Floyd Johnson said that for the time being the bones will remain in his office, where they are encased in plastic to keep them from deteriorating.

The body was found on a bed of sand under 3 feet of compacted earth, he said, but it could not be determined whether the man had been formally buried or died on the spot.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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