Kate Riley / Times staff columnist
Bones of contention — and learning
Kennewick Man made his living with his right arm, that's for sure.
The left arm of the 9,300-year-old skeleton found in Columbia River shallows 10 years ago was not disabled, as an earlier study speculated. Rather, scientists who won a nine-year legal effort to study the remains revealed recently his right arm was so developed by comparison, possibly from spearing salmon out of the river and wielding a momentum-mustering atlatl to give his spear more firing power as he hunted bison or deer.
Kennewick Man's bones are telling stories of his life and burial. But much also can be learned from the divisive, often bitter battle over whether the bones should be studied at all. At least some members of the Yakama Nation, one of four Northwest tribes that claimed the "Ancient One" as an ancestor, now seem open to working more collaboratively with scientists in the future.
Recently, the leader of the plaintiff scientists, Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, revealed findings from their July study at a Seattle meeting of forensic scientists. Through meticulous mapping of mineral deposits and staining, the scientists found that people carefully buried Kennewick Man, on his back with arms and legs straight. This contrasts starkly with an earlier U.S. Interior Department study that suggested he was buried in a flexed, or fetal, position and that he might have been covered up inadvertently.
Meanwhile, a team of 18 scientists studied the remains at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle. With their studies over 10 days, they hope to shed more light on how Kennewick Man lived and to whom he might have been related. The government study found the dimensions of his skull more closely resembled the Ainu people of Japan or Polynesians than modern Native Americans.
While the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an important law designed to rightfully return remains and artifacts to tribes where connections can be found, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2004 that remains such as Kennewick Man, exceptional in their age and appearance and with no cultural affiliation to claimant tribes, were not subject to the regulations.
That's not to say the study of Kennewick Man and the handful of other very old remains in the United States does not remain controversial, including among scientists.
• Despite the 9th Circuit's ruling in the Kennewick Man case a few months earlier, the Fallon-Shoshone Paiute Tribe in 2004 sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, claiming a skeleton even older than Kennewick Man as their ancestor and seeking to bury him. The Bureau disagrees the tribe has proven affiliation with Spirit Cave Man, found in Nevada and believed to be more than 10,000 years old. A decision is expected this year.
• Thursday, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the committee may soon hold another hearing on an amendment to the repatriation law to make it easier for tribes to claim remains with only a geographic connection rather than a direct proven cultural affiliation.
• And during this round of study at the Burke, museum officials declined to formally permit reporters access to quiz the Owsley team's scientists on museum premises — something requested last July. Even though the study is sanctioned by federal courts, two officials said the museum wanted to remain "neutral" and didn't have enough staff to accommodate the request this time. A Burke spokeswoman did attend the scientists' off-site briefing, however.
After Owsley's presentation Feb. 23, Yakama Tribal Council member Glen Howard Pinkham was disturbed by parts of the very clinical talk intended for forensic scientists. Nevertheless, Pinkham, perhaps more resigned than enthusiastic, suggested the tribe would be amenable to working with the scientists in the event of new finds — with considerations.
Tribal council member Ralph Sampson Jr., noting the familiar look of the famous spear point found in Kennewick Man's healed hip, speculated his tribal ancestors indeed might have been the man's enemies. "It was probably our ancestors who put it in there," he said. "We were probably practicing our own form of immigration law."
These comments are in stark contrast to the absolutes that marked the emotional debate surrounding these remains.
But maybe now there is some common ground to be found after all.
Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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