SEATTLE -- His bones lay for 93 centuries in a bed of fine Columbia River sand that held them gently, without compressing or distorting them. He was middle-aged when he died, say the few scientists who have seen him. He had all his teeth, and a spear tip embedded two inches deep in his pelvis.
And, they say, his face had somewhat Caucasian features.
He is called Kennewick Man, after the southern Washington town where he was discovered this past summer, and he is at once one of the biggest anthropological finds and frustrations in years. For scientists who see him as a key to understanding ancient human migration patterns, he represents a potential new chapter in North American history. But laws aimed at honoring Native American claims on ancestral remains could mean Kennewick Man will be buried again before anyone has a chance learn more.
The ancient man's age and condition alone excited anthropologists, who first had taken him for a run-of-the-mill, 18th-century pioneer. But it is his uncertain ancestry, and its implications for what the oldest North Americans might have looked like, that have placed him squarely in the middle of a long-simmering debate between science and Native American spiritual beliefs.
Passions on both sides run as deep as the Columbia. One compares reburial to the burning of the ancient library in Alexandria, while the other characterizes scientists as grave-robbers.
"If it gets reburied now, it would be the same as if one or two or three people read a Shakespearean play and then someone burned the book, and those three people tried to tell the rest of us what it was like," says D. Gentry Steele, an anthropology professor at Texas A&M; University.
"The land made a promise to take care of the Indian people," counters Armand Minthorn, a trustee of the local Umatilla tribe that, joined by four others, has claimed the bones. When the world ends, the tribe believes, the humans are supposed to rise again. "That's why it's so important to keep the bodies, the ancestral remains, where they are," he explains.
For now, the bones are locked away in a secret location by the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the site where they were found. The Corps has plans to transfer the bones to the tribes before the end of the month.
But having emerged into the 20th century, Kennewick Man will have his day in court before he rests peacefully again. Yesterday, Steele and seven other leading anthropologists and archaeologists filed suit to stop the repatriation of the bones to the Umatilla until they can be studied. The suit seeks a restraining order that could be ruled on as soon as Tuesday.
At the heart of the debate is whether the scientific importance of Kennewick Man outweighs the right of the Umatilla or other Indian tribes to follow their ancient spiritual beliefs and return the bones they claim as theirs to the soil.
"My older people, they say that when a body goes back into the ground, that body is keeping a promise from when time began," says Minthorn. "That body is supposed to stay in the ground until the end of time, and today this is beginning to not happen. This is just very disturbing for us."
Motives and jurisdiction
But the prospect of the bones being buried again without further study, anthropologists say, is criminal. Conflicts such as this, it has been suggested, are putting the profession at the brink of extinction, almost eliminating the possibility of understanding the human past.
"He's potentially the ancestor of just about everybody -- not just in North America -- just by the sheer amount of time elapsed," says James Chatters, a forensic expert in Richland, Wash., who first studied Kennewick Man.
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, bones of Native Americans that have been taken for study by museums or scientists must be returned to Indian tribes. Since its passage in 1990, the law has resulted in the return of large amounts of grave material to various tribes.
In the Kennewick case, almost no one is willing to publicly question whether the Army Corps is caving in to avoid an unpleasant battle, or whether Native Americans, long disenfranchised, are taking every opportunity to exert their power under the law. But if Kennewick Man is Caucasian, anthropologists wonder, do the Umatilla have a right to him? And how can that be determined without further study?
What is remarkable about Kennewick man, the scientists say, are facial and body characteristics that suggest a south Asian or European origin. His skull, for example, is long and narrow, with a large jaw and pronounced chin. His arm, too is long in proportion to the rest of his body.
Such characteristics, scientists say, differ markedly from prehistoric bones of American Indians that have been found. Like some earlier discoveries, they may offer support to theories that some of North America's early inhabitants may have migrated here across the Bering Straits via an ice or land bridge more than 10,000 years ago, and that Indians were not alone on the continent in prehistoric times.
Steele, who has done extensive research on paleo-Indians, the continent's pre-historic inhabitants, says Kennewick Man's skull could be interpreted as either south Asian or European. "It's not like there's a stamp on the brain case that says 'Made in Europe' or 'Made in Asia,' " he says.
Grover Krantz, an anthropology professor at Washington State University who briefly studied the skeleton, says many of the man's features seem to be American Indian, though he also has some Caucasoid and Negroid traits.
Chatters agrees that Kennewick Man displays a mix of characteristics. "We're looking at someone who's a little more toward the human average," he says. "I don't think it's an ancestor of anybody in particular," he adds. "He's an ancestor. Period."
The Umatilla disagree.
"We have oral history going back 10,000 years," says Debra Croswell, a spokeswoman for the tribe. "We know who our ancestors are. To us, the age clearly substantiates that this person would be Native American. That's what we're basing our claim on."
Krantz, among the more plain-spoken of the scientists, decries the attempt to prevent scientists from studying the skeleton.
"I think that's stupid, especially on the part of the Indians. It's in their interest more than anybody's to learn about their history," .. he says. "These people are trying to hide it and destroy the evidence.
"The Indians of the future are going to hate their ancestors of the present time for doing what they're doing," he argues.
Chatters just thinks Kennewick Man deserves better treatment after all these years.
"Here we've got a guy who lived through some very tough times," he said. "For him to be used as a political pawn is greatly disrespectful to him."
He adds that Kennewick Man should be seen as a messenger of racial harmony rather than division.
"Our common ancestry comes a lot closer to the present time than we tend to think," he says, echoing other anthropologists who consider the whole concept of race unscientific. "What are we doing to each other, why do we need to be so racially focused and separatist, when in fact we're really just one species?"
But such philosophical musings will soon give way to legal wrangling. Alan Schneider, a Portland, Ore., attorney who chairs the Center for the Study of the First Americans, an institute that conducts excavations and publishes information about the initial peopling of the Americas, is handling the legal challenge to the return of the bones to the Umatilla. Besides Steele, other scientists backing the suit are Oregon State University anthropology professor Rob Bonnichsen, and Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution.
Along with all his other distinctions, Kennewick Man has become the first prehistoric man with his own legal "defense fund," which is being set up through the Foundation for Archaeological Research in Corvallis, Ore.
Matters of time
Meanwhile, anthropologists still hope for the chance of even brief further study of Kennewick Man, perhaps including magnetic resonance imaging, CAT scans and DNA tests.
"We don't know what it can tell us, and if there isn't an opportunity to study it and document it carefully, we'll never know," says the Smithsonian's Owsley.
But tribal representatives don't want to delay the burial.
"Everyone is always asking about a compromise," says Umatilla spokeswoman Croswell. "This individual has already been compromised. Our beliefs have already been compromised -- not only with this incident, but for decades."
But Rob Bonnichsen, an anthropology professor at Oregon State University and director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, says compromise does not have to shortchange either side in the debate.
"Just knowing what science has to say is not necessarily contradictory to the Native American belief systems," he argues.
"If it's an issue, however, about who owns the past, who controls the past, then that's a different set of circumstances. And I suspect we're dealing with the latter."
Whoever is right, Kennewick Man is so far silent on the subject. Depending on who prevails, he may be forever.
Pub Date: 10/19/96