[Paleopsych] NYT: A Skeleton Moves From the Courts to the Laboratory

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Jul 19 19:31:48 UTC 2005

A Skeleton Moves From the Courts to the Laboratory


    SEATTLE, July 18 - The bones, more than 350 pieces, were laid out on a
    bed of sand, a human jigsaw with ancient resonance. Head to toe, one
    of the oldest and best-preserved sets of remains ever discovered in
    North America was ready to give up its secrets.

    After waiting 9 years to get a close look at Kennewick Man, the
    9,000-year-old skeleton that was found on the banks of the Columbia
    River in 1996 and quickly became a fossil celebrity, a team of
    scientists spent 10 days this month examining it.

    They looked at teeth, bones and plaque to determine how he lived, what
    he ate and how he died. They studied soil sedimentation and bone
    calcium for clues to whether he was ritually buried, or died in the
    place where he was found. They measured the skull, and produced a new
    model that looks vastly different from an earlier version.

    And while they were cautious about announcing any sweeping conclusions
    regarding a set of remains that has already prompted much new thinking
    on the origins of the first Americans, the team members said the
    skeleton was proving to be even more of a scientific find than they
    had expected.

    "I have looked at thousands of skeletons and this is one of the most
    intact, most fascinating, most important I have ever seen," said
    Douglas W. Owsley, a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian
    Institution's National Museum of Natural History. "It's the type of
    skeleton that comes along once in a lifetime."

    He said the initial job of the team was to "listen to the bones," and
    the atmosphere, judging from the excitement of the scientists as they
    discussed their work, was electric.

    Dr. Owsley said answers to the big questions about Kennewick Man -
    where he fits in the migratory patterns of early Americans, his age at
    the time of death, what type of culture he belonged to - will come in
    time, after future examinations.

    "But based on what we've seen so far, this has exceeded my
    expectations," said Dr. Owsley, leader of the 11-member team and one
    of the scientists who sued the government for access to the bones.
    "This will continue to change and enhance our view of early

    In preparation for the initial examination, the hip and skull were
    flown to Chicago, where they went through high-resolution CT scans,
    much more detailed than hospital scans. Those three-dimensional
    pictures were used to produce casts and replicas of the bones.

    For now, the team has finished what amounts to a sort of autopsy, with
    added value. To that end the examination, which took place under
    extraordinary circumstances at the Burke Museum of Natural History and
    Culture at the University of Washington, was aided by a forensic
    anthropologist, Hugh Berryman of Nashville, who often assists in
    criminal investigations.

    "This is real old C.S.I.," said Dr. Berryman, referring to the crime
    scene investigations that inspired the hit television shows.

    The skeleton caused a furor from the time of discovery, making waves
    far beyond the academic realm, after an examining anthropologist said
    it appeared to have "Caucasoid" features. One reconstruction made
    Kennewick Man look like Patrick Stewart, the actor who played Capt.
    Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

    American Indian tribes in the desert of the Columbia River Basin
    claimed the man as one of their own, calling him the Ancient One. The
    tribes planned to close off further examination and to bury the
    remains, in accordance with a federal law that says the government
    must turn over Indian remains to native groups that can claim
    affiliation with them.

    A group of scientists sued, setting off a legal battle, while the
    bones remained in the custody of the Army Corps of Engineers.

    In 2002, a federal magistrate, John Jelderks of Portland, Ore., ruled
    that there was little evidence to support the idea that Kennewick "is
    related to any identifiable group or culture, and the culture to which
    he belonged may have died out thousands of years ago."

    The ruling, backed by a federal appeals court last year, cleared the
    way for the scientists to begin their study.

    After being dragged into the culture wars, Kennewick Man remains a
    delicate subject - something that was clear in how the examining
    scientists parsed their descriptions of the skull at the end of 10
    days of study.

    David Hunt, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian who was instrumental
    in remodeling the skull, said he was sure there would be criticism of
    his reproduction, but he said it was based on the latest and most
    precise measurements of the head. He said it was accurate to within
    less than a hundredth of an inch.

    Standing by the translucent model inside the Burke, Dr. Hunt said, "I
    see features that are similar to other Paleo Indians," referring to
    remains older than 7,000 years that have been found in North America.

    But his colleague at the Smithsonian Dr. Owsley said that term was

    "It should be Paleo-American," Dr. Owsley said. "These bones are very
    different from what you see in Native American skeletons."

    Earlier, other anthropologists said that Kennewick Man most resembled
    the Ainu, aboriginal people from northern Japan. The scientists who
    examined Kennewick Man this month did not dispute that designation,
    but they said fresh DNA testing, carbon dating and further
    examinations would give them more accurate information.

    Earlier DNA testing, done during the court cases, failed to turn up
    matches with contemporary cultures.

    One key to Kennewick Man's life and times will be the stone spear
    point that was found embedded in his hip bone. Dr. Owsley said it was
    clear that the man did not die of the projectile, which had been
    snapped off.

    "This was a healed-over wound," he said.

    But the spear point, which was made of basalt, will be the guiding
    clue as anthropologists seek a match to other cultures.

    Kennewick Man's discovery brought fresh vigor to the discussion over
    how the Americas were inhabited. Earlier theories held that people
    crossed a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. But Kennewick Man,
    along with a few other findings, suggested that there were waves of
    migration by different people, some possibly by boat.

    The scientists who examined the skeleton, and their supporters, still
    fear that a political move could cut off future study. On behalf of
    several tribes, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and
    chairman of the committee that controls Indians affairs, has
    introduced an amendment to the law the governs custody of ancient

    His proposed change would broaden the definition of Native American
    remains, expanding it to well into the past. Indians say such a change
    is needed to protect ancient ancestors, while others say it will make
    it nearly impossible to study ancient remains, even if they have
    little or no connection to present tribes.

    But as the scientists finished their 10-day study of Kennewick Man,
    with plans to report the results in October, the politics for once
    seemed to take a back seat to the giddiness of discovery.

    "This is like an extraordinary rare book," Dr. Berryman said, "and
    we're reading it one page at a time."

More information about the paleopsych mailing list