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Monday, July 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kennewick Man yields ancient secrets

Seattle Times staff reporter

Kennewick Man timeline


July 1996: College students stumble across a human skull along the Columbia River.

August 1996: Analysis shows the bones are about 9,000 years old.

September 1996: Several tribes claim the bones as an ancestor; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it will hand them over for reburial.

October 1996: Eight leading anthropologists sue for the right to study the remains.

August 2002: A U.S. magistrate rules the bones should be studied by scientists, because it is impossible to establish an ancestry linking the bones with Native Americans.

July 6, 2005: Scientists begin first phase of studies on the skeleton.

For being more than 9,000 years old, Kennewick Man is in remarkably good shape, say scientists who began studying the ancient bones last week after a nine-year legal battle with Native American tribes and the federal government.

The skeleton is yielding even more information than expected, said Doug Owsley, the forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution who is leading the research team.

"This guy is really trying to help us tell his story," Owsley said. "I would not have thought we would get this level of detail."

From the shape of fractures to the color of algae stains, the scientists have been cataloging so much data that they've been able to process only two or three bones a day, Owsley said at a media briefing yesterday. But it's already clear that when the work is done, there will be answers to long-standing questions, including whether the man was buried intentionally, Owsley predicted.

"I feel we are going to be able to make strong statements, and I wasn't really sure that would be possible when we began this," he said. The patterns of calcium deposits offer some hints on the burial mystery, said University of Wisconsin geochemist Thomas Stafford Jr. If the man were laid to rest face up, those compounds would concentrate on backs of his bones. And indeed, some of the leg bones examined so far show such a pattern — though others are less clear.

Stafford also is planning another round of carbon dating to better pin down the skeleton's age. Earlier tests yielded a wide range, from about 7,000 years to 9,500 — with the best guess being about 9,200 years.

"That's unacceptable," Stafford said. "We really don't know how old this skeleton is."

Remnants from previously tested hand, foot and shin-bone fragments will be used for the new tests, so no additional material will have to be removed from the skeleton. The samples also will be tested for an array of chemical isotopes that can reveal what Kennewick Man ate and whether he lived all his life in the Northwest or roamed the country.

Stafford has zeroed in on two parts of the skeleton that are most promising for DNA tests: the teeth and a dense bone from the inner ear. Earlier efforts failed to extract genetic material, which would help determine the man's origins and his closest living relatives.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land where the skeleton was discovered and still controls access to the bones, hasn't yet granted permission to take any additional samples.

"If you're going to find out who he is related to, that's the only scientific way to do it," Stafford said.

Two college students stumbled across the skeleton on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996, and the remains quickly became the focus of controversy.

The federal government and several Native American tribes insisted the bones be reburied under a law meant to stop desecration of Indian graves. Eight scientists, including Owsley, sued and won the right to study what is one of the oldest, most-complete sets of human remains ever discovered in North America.

"This is a very important skeleton," he said. "You can count on one hand the number of skeletons this old."

The skull's dimensions are very different from existing and historic Native American populations, suggesting the Northwest might have been colonized at different times by people from different parts of Asia, anthropologists say.

The nine-year delay in being able to examine the bones has actually provided a kind of scientific advantage, Owsley said, displaying clear plastic models of the skull and portion of the man's hip bone with a stone spear tip embedded in it.

Only in the past five years has high-powered CT-scanning technology been able to produce the detailed, three-dimensional images used to create the models.

The hip model already has revealed that the tip of the spearpoint had broken off, possibly when the man tried to snap off the spear shaft. Closer analysis should determine what direction the blow came from, how bad the wound was and how long it took to heal.

The high-tech approach and painstaking analysis being used to probe Kennewick Man's past will set a new standard for working with such rare and old skeletons, Owsley predicted.

The work is being done under tight security at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. But the atmosphere is electric, said C. Wayne Smith, artifact-conservation specialist from Texas A&M University.

"We've brought this massive set of resources together to be able to see the story these bones can tell us," he said. "It's very exciting every day."

Hugh Berryman, a forensic anthropologist from Middle Tennessee State University, put it another way: "This is like working with a Rembrandt. It's one of a kind."

The skeleton will be held by the Corps of Engineers for study indefinitely, said Jennifer Richman, an attorney in the agency's Northwestern Division. Long after the current studies are wrapped up, future anthropologists with new techniques may be able to tease out even more information from the bones.

"Ten years from now, who knows what we can do?" Stafford asked.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or doughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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