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Tuesday, December 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Science

Mew Branch Of The Human Family Tree? -- Kennewick Man, Other Skeletons May Represent A Whole New Human Branch

Seattle Times Science Reporter

Paleo-Americans, this continents' first inhabitants? Beringia, an ice-free corridor that early arrivals to this continent traveled, wasn't passable by humans until about 13,000 years ago. That led to at least one wave of human migration to this continent. Scientists theorize Paleo-Americans like the Kennewick Man - a small group of even earlier arrivals from a different part of Asia - used the Bering Land Bridge before it iced over or may have taken a sea route. ------------------------------------------- Anthropology: Recent radiocarbon dates on discoveries such as the Kennewick Man push the envelope on the timing and rhythm of the earliest migrations to this continent, raise doubts as to who made it first and pose sticky questions about who has rights to ancient remains.

The earliest Americans made a break for the New World using Beringia, an ice-free corridor among giant glacial sheets thousands of years ago. First, plants sprouted amid the mud, washed-out plain and rocks. Animals followed next. Then about 13,000 years ago, prehistoric humans made the journey down that Bering Land Bridge, beginning an arduous trek ever southward.

Or so goes conventional wisdom.

Some scientists now call that the "cartoon version" of human migration, with Big Game Hunters breaking through the ice sheets (KAPOW!) and descending in blitzkrieg fashion (BAM!) into this New World.

Enter the so-called Kennewick Man, skeletal remains that a pair of college students tripped over while watching hydroplane races in the summer of 1996. Radiocarbon testing indicates the remains are 9,300 to 9,600 years old, making the individual among the oldest humans identified so far on this continent.

But the Kennewick Man is just one of a growing number of ancient skeletons that some scientists say are so unlike ancestors of modern-day Native Americans that they may represent an entirely new branch on the human family tree.

"The whole picture of how people got into the Americas has gotten more complex and more rich than what we had before," said Joseph Powell, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico who has studied remains found in the Americas that are older than 9,000 years.

These ancient skeletal remains raise a score of deceptively short questions that may take years to answer: Who is this person? What are his affiliations? Where does this prehistoric individual fit in the larger issue of human migration to the Americas? Does a federal law that empowers Native Americans to reclaim and rebury skeletal remains apply to these older relics?

The sticky issues intersect at Kennewick, said David Meltzer, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University whose specialty is trying to understand the origins and adaptations of the earliest Americans.

Who were Paleo-Americans?

These earliest arrivals, dubbed Paleo-Americans by some, may have hugged the coastal fringes where seafood was plentiful as they slowly made their way past Siberia, down into Alaska, some moving south down the continent, others fanning into the interior. Or, perhaps, they traveled before the Ice Age laid down immense glacial sheets.

What seems clear is that some set out early. A human settlement in southern Chile - about 8,000 miles from the Bering Land Bridge - shows signs of human inhabitants from at least 12,500 years ago.

Jim Chatters, a Richland-based forensic anthropologist who studied Kennewick Man the most before the federal government confiscated the remains, paints a view of Paleo-Americans with stark contrasts.

They may be a new and different branch of the human family tree, he argues, and one that is distinctly different from the Amerind branch who are ancestors of modern-day Native Americans.

Powell, the University of New Mexico scientist, has found that Paleo-Americans have features more suggestive of people from far-flung places in the world than of modern Native Americans.

He said Paleo-American remains found in Warm Mineral Springs, a small Florida resort, have lower and mid-portions of the face that project significantly in front of the eyes - appearing more related to ancient Ainu and Jomon people of Asia.

Gentry Steele, an anthropology professor at Texas A&M University, agrees that Paleo-Americans more closely resemble people who lived in southern and central Asia, while modern Native Americans more closely resemble people from Northeast Asia.

Few ancient skeletons

The nagging question is why? You could simply argue, Steele said, that Paleo-Americans are descendants of people who once lived in southern and central Asia. But you could also argue they are earlier ancestors of the recent northeast Asians. These ancestors lived before the northeast Asians evolved to have such distinctive features.

That's the rub with human biology, Powell added. Over long spans of time, several evolutionary processes can explain one end product.

He ticked off the possibilities: Paleo-Americans could be an earlier wave of migrants from Asia, a single wave of migrants who settled down and changed over time, or a group totally unrelated to modern-day Native Americans.

"The people we need to talk to could be the Chukhi and the Evenki of Siberia," he said. "That's the problem we're dealing with now. We have to rule out some of those alternative scenarios."

Part of what makes the field so murky, Steele said, is that there are few ancient skeletons.

"You have a small sample. You have 9,300 years separating us from the populations we're trying to envision. And we don't have good samples of (like) age from all the places in Asia to compare them with," he said.

Even if study weren't problematic for political reasons, there are physical limitations. Skeletal remains in some sites are just fragments, with not enough bone to establish biological affinity. At Arlington Springs, Calif., remains were limited to two upper leg bones - enough to date the individual at 10,000 years old, but not enough evidence to say to whom he or she is related. Cranial measurements of a skull found at Wilson-Leonard, Texas, weren't so helpful because the skull was so crushed that it was distorted, he said.

The small sample size raises the stakes at Kennewick. The remains are missing only a few minor bones, making it one of the most complete ancient skeletons found. Calcium carbonate - the same alkaline left in pipes by hard water - is credited for the skeleton's remarkable physical condition.

"This individual is so well-preserved, it has the potential of providing an inordinate amount of information," Steele said.

Some argue that now is the time for a re-examination of old truths.

Tom Dillehay, an anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky, suffered through two decades of agony challenging conventional wisdom. "Clovis Police" staunchly argued that no humans were present in the Americas before people inhabited a Clovis, N.M., site, leaving behind stone spear points more than 11,000 years old. Dillehay's 20-year research project at Chile's Monte Verde site uncovered stone implements that are generally agreed to date back 12,500 years.

"The acceptance curve, with respect to new ideas . . . is much less steep and longer now. That curve is much softer," Dillehay said. "It's a ripe time in the discipline, I think, to start presenting good evidence and casting new questions around that data."

Research mired in politics

Not so fast, Native American tribes across the nation say in a uniform chorus. Tribes have had some success wresting away skeletal remains they consider ancestors. The repatriations include the Buhl Burial in Idaho, a 10,675-year-old woman reburied before word spread widely of her radiocarbon age.

Scientists wanting to do a DNA test on a single strand of hair in Nevada have been thwarted. Smithsonian scientists wanting to examine skeletons in Minnesota have been barred. Nowhere have restrictions been greater than at Kennewick, where scientists had to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to conduct minimal research where the skeleton was found.

Some tribes consider the flurry of scientific theories - new and old - as just theories spun by curious outsiders. As scientists operate on an abstract level, the tribal groups say they think more on human terms: They consider it reprehensible that sacred burial areas are considered fair game for research and are appalled when pieces of their ancestors are consumed by DNA testing.

"We do not believe in doing this. This is unheard of," said Alvin Moyle, tribal chairman of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribes in Nevada. "You're not paying any respect to a people. Yet you can look at (cemeteries.) They're taken care of. It's a religious place for you. It's a sacred place. It's a one-sided affair."

The tribal council made a claim on 9,415-year-old, partly mummified remains found at Spirit Cave in Nevada, near the Lahontan Valley reservation that 958 Fallon and Paiute-Shoshone call home. The oldest members of the tribe knew of the burial place, and elders were told by their grandparents and great-grandparents of the original extent of the tribes' domain. The tribe hopes this oral history will be compelling enough evidence for the remains to be returned from their storage place, the Nevada State Museum.

The tribes can't definitively prove relationship without DNA testing. Hair and bone samples give valuable insight. But the tribes are opposed to tests that destroy even a single hair from an ancestor.

"Who is going to prove what during a span (that long)?" Moyle said. Scientists "can talk about there was an ice-free bridge and there were people who came from Asia - that's where everybody came from. We'll say they were completely wrong. Because right now, it's theory and it's nothing else."

Moyle said the tribe is willing to go to Washington, D.C., to talk with any official receptive to their views.

The issue's already on the minds of some. In the last days of the recent congressional session, U.S. Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings, whose district includes Kennewick, introduced a bill that would soften the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The act, signed into law by former President Bush, has been the main tool tribes use to retrieve remains from federally funded museums and institutions.

In an upcoming article for the journal Archaeology, SMU anthropologist Meltzer said the act "heralds a fundamental change in the relationship between archaeologists and Native Americans. . . . Museums are returning remains to native groups who - to the vocal dismay of archaeologists - are reburying them. Some darkly predict, while others cheer, the end of American archaeology."

Meltzer writes, "Kennewick hits (the act) right where it's weakest: The law requires remains to be repatriated to the lineal descendants . . . but proving lineal descent at that distance is no easy task."

Many, like the Bureau of Land Management, expect the affiliation issue to be resolved by the courts. A federal magistrate has sharply criticized the U.S. Army Corps for its handling of the Kennewick remains, but has made no final ruling.

"Everyone is looking at Kennewick to set a precedent," said Cynthia Ellis-Pinto, Native American program coordinator for the BLM in Nevada. "Nobody wants to be the first. But everybody want to see what happens."

Diedtra Henderson's phone message number is 206-464-8259. Her e-mail address is: dhen-new@seatimes.com ------------------------------------------- Sites where Paleo-American remains have been identified Name................ Place.......Age of remains . 1. Buhl Burial.........Idaho........10,675 years . 2. Spirit Cave Man.....Nevada.......9,415 . 3. Wizard Beach........Nevada.......about 9,500 . 4. Brown's Valley Man..Minnesota....about 8,700 . 5. Warm Mineral Springs.Florida.....about 10,260 . 6. Kennewick Man........Washington..9,300 to 9,600 . 7. Gordon Creek...... ..Colorado....9,700 . 8. Whitewater Draw......Arizona.....8,000 to 10,000 . 9. Wilson-Leonard.......Texas.......older than 9,000 . 10. Horn Shelter.........Texas.......9,000 . 11. Arlington Springs....California..10,000 . 12. La Brea..............California..9,000. 13. Mostin...............California..about 10,000 . ------------------------------------------- Kennewick Man's features Caucasoid?

Some scientists argue that the Paleo-Americans more closely resemble Ainu and Jomon - ancestors of Ainu - ancient people who lived in East Asia. Here are features that make the Kennewick Man more resemble Caucasoids than ancestors of contemporary Native Americans:

# Long, narrow brain case .

# Cheekbones narrow, relative to the height of the face .

# Extremely prominent nose that begins high, between the eyes .

# Hourglass-shaped nasal bone .

# Canine-teeth roots long and hooked .

# Chewing muscles wrap almost to back of the skull .

# Projecting chin .

Photo credit: Ben Benschneider, Seattle Times. Source: Jim Chatters, Applies Paleoscience .

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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