Friday, February 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kennewick Man yields more secrets

Seattle Times staff reporter

Kennewick Man is whispering across 9,000 years.

The story his bones tell has no clear beginning yet. But the end is coming into sharp focus, say scientists who have been studying the controversial skeleton for the past six months.

It's now clear the man Native Americans call the Ancient One was deliberately buried — not just covered over with sediment, said Doug Owsley, leader of the team that first examined the skeleton last summer and returned for another round of study this month.

Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, presented the researchers' first conclusions Thursday night in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

"This skeleton is so amazing," Owsley said in an interview. "And this level of analysis has never been done before."

Painstaking examination of the bones shows the body was placed in a shallow grave about 400 yards from where scientists believe the Columbia River was at the time. Kennewick Man was laid parallel to the river, on his back. His legs were extended, arms at his sides. His palms rested on the earth.

That picture contradicts some earlier studies that suggested he was in a fetal position, with knees drawn up to his chest.

The scientists say the evidence also hints that Kennewick Man was probably in his 30s when he died. Previous estimates had said he might have been as old as 45.

And a spear point embedded in his right hip had healed over cleanly. So it likely did not cause a chronic infection, as some experts had suspected initially, Owsley said.

The skeleton was discovered in 1996 in the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities town of Kennewick. Carbon dating has shown that the bones are about 9,200 years old.

Legal tug of war

After nine years of legal battles, the scientists won the right to study what has proved to be one of the oldest, most complete skeletons ever discovered in North America. Several Northwest tribes claimed the remains as an ancestor and insisted they be reburied. A federal judge finally concluded the bones were so old that it's impossible to establish a link with modern-day Native Americans.

When Owsley and his team finally got the chance to work with the bones, which are kept at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, they set out to answer several questions, including the issue of burial. They also hope to learn more about where his ancestors originated, and what kind of life he lived in a time thousands of years before civilizations arose in Mesopotamia.

Not all the studies are done, but the burial issue is settled, Owsley said.

To do that, the researchers made detailed diagrams of each of the 350 bone fragments, noting patterns of shading, mineral coloration, algae growth and calcium-carbonate deposits. All those indicators help reveal how the skeleton was oriented in the ground before the grave was eroded away by the river. And they show the body had been carefully positioned by other human hands.

Records of the river's levels in 1996 prove that the bones were washed into the river mere weeks before they were found, Owsley said. Had they weathered out earlier, they would have been swept downstream.

Kennewick Man was covered by about 2 ½ feet of earth before the river eroded the bank and freed the bones. But the grave would have been covered by years of sediments, so the original hole might have been even shallower, said Tom Stafford, a geochemist from the University of Wisconsin.

"They were probably digging with a stick," he said.

Early findings refuted

High-resolution scans of the hip bone have allowed the scientists to construct an exact replica of the stone spear point. A team of scientists that earlier examined the skeleton concluded the man had been speared from behind — perhaps by fellow hunters. But the current team said the pattern of chips and breaks on the point shows it penetrated Kennewick Man from the front.

"It would have sat him down — no doubt about it," Owsley said.

Also, they figure he was between 15 and 20 years old when he suffered the wound.

Seattle archaeologist Jim Chatters, who was the first scientist to examine the bones in 1996, said being able to re-examine them in greater detail with more modern methods has changed some of his earlier impressions.

For example, spots on the temple and elbow that he originally concluded were evidence of an infection have been shown to be simple weathering, he said.

Several other questions about Kennewick Man are still awaiting lab results, including a new round of carbon-dating and isotopic studies to show what his diet was like.

But the most contentious issue of all probably won't be settled for some time.

The first measurements of the skull showed it didn't match existing Native American populations. And that led to suggestions that Kennewick Man's ancestors might not have originated in Northern Asia like those of most Native Americans, who are believed to have crossed from Asia to Alaska about 11,000 years ago.

Owsley and his colleagues have made an extensive set of new skull measurements. They now are comparing them to a database of more than 7,000 modern and prehistoric people from around the world.

"We have a lot more work to do," he said.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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