By Michael Kilian
Published June 28, 2005
WASHINGTON -- In an eerie, cryptlike, environment-controlled vault in a museum in Seattle lie the skeletal remains of one of the earliest Americans -- and a forbidding mystery some 9,300 years old.
The staring skull and well-preserved bones pose questions that scientists from the Smithsonian here and other leading institutions have fought an eight-year legal battle with the federal government and five Indian tribal groups for the right to solve.
Having won the battle, scientists will early next month begin laborious but ingenious computer-assisted detective work that they hope will begin to provide some answers.
Some of the questions are the stuff of routine anthropological curiosity. How did a spear point come to be imbedded in the man's hip when he was likely still a teenager? More compellingly, how did he manage to survive such a crippling wound and live on into middle age?
Looming above all, however, is a matter of far more consequence. Who were his people and where did they come from?
His facial features and cranial structure are not those of the ancient Indians who have long been believed to have migrated to North America via an ice age land bridge from Asia. Neither are they of any known Asian type.
They appear to be those of a European Caucasian.
"The type of cranial [structure] is very different from what I'm used to seeing in Native American skeletons," said Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley. "If I wanted to describe a Native American skull from South Dakota or from the Northwest coast that you would see very commonly, say, from 7,000 years ago on to the present, they tend to be very long-faced from the bridge of the nose to the lips . . . and their cranial vault tends to be medium-sized by world population standards."
The 9,300-year-old man lying in Seattle's Burke Museum is different, he said.
Called "Kennewick Man" for the Columbia River town in Washington state where they were discovered by two college students watching a boat race in 1996, the remains now at the Burke Museum would appear to bolster radical theories about how this continent was originally settled.
Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford, another of the scientists involved in the Kennewick project, has suggested that the earliest North Americans may have been ancient Caucasian mariners from Europe who followed the coastal shores of an Atlantic land bridge.
Ironically, Kennewick Man's remains were initially thought to be those of a contemporary murder victim.
Owsley, who frequently does forensic work for law enforcement agencies, was called in by the local coroner.
But DNA tests quickly established that the bones were thousands of years old.
Unfortunately for the scientists, they were also presumed to be Native American by local tribes and the federal government.
The Interior Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on whose land the skeleton was discovered, moved swiftly to officially declare them so.
Under a 1990 federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), designed to redress Indian grievances over the widespread treatment of 19th and early 20th Century Indian remains and artifacts as scientific specimens, the bones were to have been turned over for burial to the Northwest tribes, to whom Kennewick Man is known simply as "the Ancient One."
But this would have precluded any scientific study. Contending there was no biological evidence that the remains were Indian and no establishment of cultural ties -- as required by the NAGPRA law -- Owsley and seven other scientists filed suit to prevent the repatriation so they could proceed with their study.
They were eventually upheld by a federal appeals court last year. The tribes declined to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court, saying they lacked the necessary resources and there was no certainty they would win.
But the issue remains a raging national controversy in both the Native American and scientific communities.