He was 45 or 50 years old when he died; a ripe age, considering the knocks life had handed him. He'd survived a rib-crushing blow

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Bones of Contention

How the discovery of a 9,000-year-old skeleton on the Columbia River may sink the land-bridge theory of North American settlement and has pitted science against Native American rights.

He was 45 or 50 years old when he died; a ripe age, considering the knocks life had handed him. He'd survived a rib-crushing blow to the chest, the crippling of his left arm, a murderous attack by an unknown enemy. But his death, when it came, was peaceful enough. Whether he died alone out on the flats near the great river or was interred there according to the ceremonies of his people, he was lucky in his resting place. His bones lay quiet for 9,000 circuits of the wheeling heavens, while 400 generations of his kind lived and bred and died in their turn. In the end, it was the river that broke their long sleep.

Each year, on the fourth Sunday in July, the inhabitants of the Pasco Basin assemble in their tens of thousands on the banks of the Columbia River for the grandest, if not most solemn, event of their ritual year: the running of the hydros. By late afternoon this year, with the last race run and the champion crowned, the crowds were streaming out of Kennewick's Columbia Park toward home and Sunday dinner, unaware that the day's excitements weren't yet over. Paddling in the river shallows between races, two young celebrants had come across a human skull.

The remains of forebears occupy a special place of reverence in many human cultures, and ours is no exception. Confronted with a human skull in a bucket, officers of the Kennewick law accompanied the youths to the scene of their discovery, found more bones strewn about in the river shallows, and passed word up through their superiors to Benton County coroner Floyd Johnson, the man in charge of death in those parts. Johnson's pre-elective experience as a police officer had acquainted him with death in most of its forms, but it had not qualified him to discern identity or date and cause of death from a huddle of bare bones. Fortunately, an adept in the arcane art of divining information from human remains was ready of hand, in the person of James C. Chatters, BA, MA, PhD.

Most doctors of anthropology have their labs on college campuses or in museums of the life sciences. Chatters' lab occupies the basement family room of a split-level home on the northern fringe of Richland, Washington, near the airport. There Chatters pursues the financially precarious career of a freelance scholar, earning his living as an expert consultant on the age, ecology, and history of sites of scientific interest from the shores of Puget Sound to the forests of Montana, as a consultant to federal, state, and Native American governments on the interpretation and proper handling of ancient human artifacts and remains.

As he sat down Monday morning to fulfill his mandate from the coroner, Chatters needed to answer two questions. The first—death by foul play or natural causes?—was the easiest to dispose of. Apart from some ribs, broken but re-fused, the only evidence of possible violence was a grayish discoloration in the left blade of the pelvis, smaller than a little-finger nail: possibly a bullet embedded in the bone, possibly a chip from an ill-timed rock blast, but in any case nothing likely to cause death. Conclusion, pending additional information: death from natural causes.

The second question, that of age, was harder to answer. The bones were clearly not "fresh": Minerals leached from the desert soil had stained them, here and there welding sand grains in contact with them into a patchy, recalcitrant crust. Just as surely, they had not been in the river long: Despite the current, even small bones of the hands and feet had not been washed far from the area where the skull, pelvis, and limb bones lay.

In the Tri-Cities area, human remains turn up in and near the Columbia fairly often. The 60-mile "Hanford Reach" between Priest Rapids Dam and the mouth of the Snake River is the last stretch of the Columbia not yet chopped and channeled by the busy hand of man, and every spring flood turns up evidence that Native Americans lived and worked and buried their dead along its banks in the centuries before the federal government fenced them off for its own deadly games.

Chatters had seen such remains often. Even at first glance, the bones deployed on his worktable looked different, the skull in particular. Typically, Native American skulls are roundish, not notably different in dimension ear to ear and nose to nape. Often they're somewhat flattened at the back, the result of being firmly secured to a backboard carrier during infancy, when the braincase is still soft and easily reshaped. The skull in Chatters' hand exhibited no flattening; and it was "dolichocephalic," significantly longer front to back than side to side.

By itself, long-headedness isn't terribly helpful in identifying the provenance of human remains, but there were other, subtler anomalies as well. In Native Americans, teeth tend to form a tight arc in the jawbone, often "recurving" in slightly toward the rear. The teeth in this skull, worn but well preserved, displayed a broad frontage and no recurvature, and lacked one of the most distinctive skeletal signs of Native American biological heritage: a broad, single root on a particular tooth in the upper jaw that in most strains of Homo sapiens sapiens exhibits two. Most subtle of all: Above the canine teeth of the skull and just below where the nostrils flare in life lay two small dimples in the bone of the upper jaw. These "canine fossae" aren't part of the Native American identi-kit, but they're all but omnipresent in persons of European ancestry.

By Monday's end, Chatters had adduced enough from his examination to earn his fee from the coroner. The bones were old, or oldish, showed no evidence of a violent decease, and appeared to be those of a fiftyish male of Northern European ancestry. But there were things about the bones, things of no significance for forensic purposes, that put anthropologist Chatters on high alert: something about the orientation of the eye sockets, a subtle flatness of curvature between skull ridge and ear hole. The skeleton in general and the skull in particular didn't look at all "Native American," but they didn't look exactly "Northern European" either.

Chatters notified the coroner that the bones on the beach appeared to be old and of no concern to the police, but asked for more time to refine his judgment. Somewhat belatedly, the coroner contacted the owner of the property where the remains had been found: the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Bones and artifacts discovered on federal property can't be moved or studied without a permit issued under the Archeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). On July 31, four days after the bones were found, the corps granted an ARPA permit retroactive to the day of discovery, a decision that came back to haunt it.

Chatters is a passionate advocate for involving the wider community in scientific issues, and in the next few days the community got thoroughly involved. A dentist friend of Chatters checked out the teeth to get a better notion of age at death. A retired Central Washington University professor looked the bones over and came down hard: obvious Caucasian male.

But there was still that mysterious gray inclusion in the pelvis. Chatters delicately scraped away the sand concretions obscuring it. Better exposed, it looked more like rock than metal. Chatters took the bone to Kennewick General Hospital technicians and got it X-rayed. Metal is more opaque to X-rays than bone; this looked more transparent. Rock, then? Chatters started to get excited. With a friend versed in the lore of archaic tools he scraped away more of the margin of the object: enough to see distinct signs of manual flaking, even a glimpse of finely serrated edge. Back to Kennewick General, this time for a CAT scan. This time the image was unambiguous: They were looking at a 2-inch fragment of stone spearpoint, all but completely buried in the bone. The craftsmanship of the point was equally unambiguous: a leaf-shaped point in so-called "Cascade" style, out of fashion in these parts for some 5,000 years.

At this point, if not before, an alarm must have gone off in Chatters' well-schooled anthropologist brain. ARPA, passed in 1979, was designed to ensure that objects of historical value found on federal land wouldn't be exploited commercially—at least before yielding their secrets up to science. But there was another federal law to be considered.

Since November 16, 1990, appropriate treatment of human remains discovered on federal land has been covered by Public Law 101-601, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA for short). Section 3 of NAGPRA, dealing with "Ownership," is totally explicit in its terms: Native American human remains belong to and are to be controlled by 1) "the lineal descendants of the Native American" in question, or, failing evidence of lineal descent, 2) by the Native American tribe or grouping "on whose land such objects or remains were discovered."

You could argue that finding a Cascade spearpoint embedded in the Kennewick remains doesn't prove that the remains are Native American. But it certainly shifts the burden of proof to anyone saying that they aren't. And Native Americans had already signaled interest in the bones: By afternoon of the day news of the discovery was published in the Tri-Cities Herald, a representative of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, a group particularly zealous about proper treatment of Indian remains, had called the coroner asking to be kept abreast of developments. So far, Chatters hadn't invited Native Americans to join his informal "community" investigatory team, but he also hadn't committed himself to irreversible actions. His next investigatory move guaranteed that there'd be trouble when it came to light.

On August 5, a week into his investigation, Chatters asked for and got permission from the coroner to send a small bone joining the wrist and little finger of the skeleton's left hand to a Southern California lab for radiocarbon dating. So well preserved was the bone that the head of that lab, once his own tests were complete, suggested sending the remaining fragment to another scientist for DNA analysis. Blithely getting in deeper, the coroner authorized further tests.

Carbon dating and DNA analysis can be performed on remarkably small samples these days, but both are still, inevitably, "destructive": The sample's physical integrity must be compromised to extract the molecules to be analyzed. However small the sample might be, it belonged to someone, and whoever that someone was, Jim Chatters and the Benton County coroner were a long, long way from qualifying as next of kin.

R. Ervin Taylor's Riverside lab took its time with the analysis. It was on Saturday, August 24, almost four weeks since the discovery and two days before Chatters' final report was due to the coroner, that the call came in. "You sitting down?" said the voice on the phone. "Oh, good," thought Chatters, "good."

Mass-spectrometer analysis of carbon 14 from the sample yielded a date of 8,410 "radiocarbon" years before the present, with a margin for error of plus or minus just 60 years: about 9,000 solar years. "Kennewick Man," hunting the banks of the Columbia some 9,000 years ago, represents the third- or fourth-oldest—and incomparably the best-preserved— human remains yet found in this part of the world, among the oldest anywhere in North America.

The press conference August 27 to announce the results, featuring Chatters, coroner Johnson, and miscellaneous pleased and excited city officials, produced reverberations in media right around the world. The story had everything: human interest (the decedent's injuries, that chip of spear), controversy ("caucasoid" traits, quickly eroded to "Caucasian": Did Norwegians before Leif Erickson make it to the New World?), and a Guinness Book record of sorts in the age of the bones. It also produced an immediate and infuriated reaction from Native Americans closer to home.

Many Native American groups authorize scientific examination of artifacts and remains discovered on their land. But it took them the better part of 50 years to call the attention of federal authorities to the high-handed way the remains had been treated throughout most of the nation's history, and a further 10-year battle against concerted resistance from leaders of the science and museum establishment to get NAGPRA through Congress.

From the outset, the Kennewick remains had been treated as if NAGPRA did not exist: sketched, cleaned, measured, X-rayed, CAT scanned, radio-carbon-dated, and even sent in for DNA analysis, without notice to, let alone authorization from presumptive next of kin: the living Native American inhabitants of the Columbia Basin.

Today Chatters maintains that he was overruled when he asked local authorities to delay announcing the results of his study until the groups in question could be notified. But such consideration for Native American sensibilities was not much in evidence when Chatters addressed the media at Kennewick City Hall that Tuesday afternoon. He dwelled on skeletal details that diverge sharply from the Native American physical norm, and talked about the significance of finding "caucasoid" features in remains dating from the earliest known human occupation of the area.

For members of the press, the anthropological term "caucasoid" is essentially synonymous with the "Caucasian" of TV cop-talk, and from "Caucasian" it's a smooth slide to "European" or even "Northern European." By the time The New York Times speculated on the front page of its national edition that European hunter-gatherers may have preceded the ancestors of today's Native Americans in the settlement of the continent, it was too late for clarifications or apologies.

Native Americans were, predictably, enraged. Not content, it seemed, with five centuries of expropriation, extermination, and humiliation of the peoples he found in possession on his arrival in the New World, the White Man was now claiming to have gotten here first. The Corps of Engineers, awakened at last to its responsibilities under law, contacted all the tribal groups likely to be interested in what happened next to the bones, but the damage was done. The only thing required of the corps, said representatives of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama, Colville, and Wanapum nations, was to reclaim the remains of their long-ago ancestor from the scientific and media spotlight and turn them over without further examination—"repatriate" them, in NAGPRA jargon—for immediate and reverent re-burial.

Considering the provocation, the official Native American explanation of their position was remarkably temperate. A "position paper" for the Umatilla tribe signed by tribal elder Armand Minthorn cited "our religious beliefs, culture, and our adopted policies and procedure" in justification of their demand. "Our elders have taught us once a body goes into the ground, it is meant to stay there until the end of time. . . .

"Some scientists say that if this individual is not studied further, we, as Indians, will be destroying evidence of our own history. We already know our history. . . ."

The Indian claim on the bones generated wider media coverage than ever. All but ignored went the issue of due application of federal law. Most stories limned the conflict not as one of law but between Science and Superstition, between the free pursuit of knowledge in the interest of all humanity versus the narrow political agenda of a selfish few.

But in fact more than one political agenda was at stake. For every eminent anthropologist who popped into print deploring the loss to science if the bones were reburied without further examination, there were others equally eminent who were furious with Chatters for undoing six years of hard work convincing Native Americans that NAGPRA would prevent further desecration and destruction of ancestral remains.

Few persons are as well placed to comment on the position taken by these scientists as James Nason, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and curator of New World Ethnology at the Burke Museum, himself affiliated with the Comanche tribe.

"At the time of NAGPRA's passage, museums, government agencies, and private collections around the country contained thousands and thousands of Native American human remains. In many cases these remains had not been studied, but were just gathering dust as parts of collections. In some cases these were not anonymous bones from some burial site, but were the remains of named and known individuals," says Nason.

"Many of the scholars in charge of these collections were opposed to and fought the passage of NAGPRA. Their basic argument was the loss of potential knowledge: 'If we give up these remains for reburial, who can tell if in 10, 20, or 100 years from now there might be new information we could glean from them, information forever lost to us.'

"This argument is perfectly sound as far as it goes, but it assumes that the pursuit of what we call 'scientific knowledge' is not only good in itself but takes, and should take, precedence over all other competing kinds of good. It says that science and scientists have a privileged position because they know what truth is and should be in such matters.

"From this perspective what Indians believe to be true doesn't qualify, and also isn't science. For example, Indians don't have 'real' history, just traditions. Beyond this it is clear that some scholars were absolutely not willing to see a situation come about where Indians were going to be in a position of telling them what they could and could not study. They had visions of some guy in jeans pulling his pickup up to a museum's loading dock and demanding everything back. Because of such attitudes and the growing debate over this, some museums apparently never let Indians into their collections, right up to NAGPRA's passage."

Nason continues, "You have to recognize that whatever differences in world view there may be between scientists and Native Americans, the issue over in Kennewick is one of law. Some scientists welcomed NAGPRA and have been working hard since it was passed to find ways of satisfying their desire to know in active collaboration with tribes and with Native American values and reverence for the dead. This is also what most tribes want, and is clearly working. But there are others who have never accepted the principles behind NAGPRA, who believe that despite extensive testimony and lobbying that Congress made a mistake, and who have just been waiting for an opportunity to keep challenging its provisions. It looks to me that some of them have decided that this is a case where they can pursue that 'we're right and you're all wrong' goal. I think it is both interesting and pitiful to see so much energy used so foolishly, but that's a very kindly appraisal in comparison to what many scholars and Native Americans think of both them and their efforts."

Science is not as inhumanly disinterested a proceeding as its practitioners would have the lay public believe. An anthropologist has clout within his profession in proportion to the rarity and importance of his or her discoveries. The apparent novelty of the Kennewick remains, even more than their great age, lends the scientist with a claim to their discovery high visibility in the bones business.

Even the science-versus-myth dichotomy so confidently advanced by science writers and editorialists deploring the government for taking the Native American side in the dispute, isn't as conclusive as it seems at first glance. The contention of many Native American groups that their roots extend literally into the North American earth—that their forebears were born of its soil or the animals native to it, a separate human creation—is, from the point of view of Western science, little more than a pious fiction.

But large tracts of Western "science" are more myth-in-progress than constructions of hard knowledge and solid fact. Anthropology is such a tract, with historical anthropology (the study of the origins, spread, and social evolution of humanity) a particularly thorny and ill-defined thicket at its very center. Rarely in the annals of human affairs has so much confident assertion been based on such sparse, unprepossessing, and ambiguous evidence as in anthropology's confident extrapolation of the origins and spread of humankind from a few hundred teeth and skull fragments found here and there around the world.

One of the most satisfying tales in this mythos is that of the peopling of North America: satisfying because it's straightforward, plausible, and simple. According to this story, the human species did not leave the warm savannahs of east-central Africa until about 100,000 years ago, its spread from there impeded by the glacial cold of the continental masses to the north. As the "Ice Age" climate softened, humanity expanded its base of operations, first apparently into southern Europe, then, some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, across the vast, treeless plain that stretched thousands of miles from the Black Sea to Lake Baikal and beyond.

During this period, two vast ice caps dominated most of North America from the Arctic Ocean to the southern edge of today's Great Lakes. So much of the world's supply of water was withdrawn from the oceans into these miles-deep accumulations that sea levels were 300 feet lower than today's. In some regions (the Pacific Coast of the US, for example) the shoreline dropped off so rapidly that the lower sea level had little effect on the shape of the continent. In other regions, shallows stretched so far seaward that the boundaries of the dry land were utterly changed: nowhere more so than the province geologists call "Beringia."

Between about 25,000 and 15,000 years ago, present-day Siberia and Alaska were joined by a 1,500-mile-wide plain now (but for a few islands) submerged in 100 to 200 feet of seawater. Scientists today call this drowned land "Beringia," after the straits that today separate Siberia and Alaska. It seemed likely—nearly inescapable—that the ancestors of North Americans-to-be must have drifted ever eastward across Siberia in their eternal quest for the mammoth, the musk ox, and other scarce big-ticket items in their diet, then, in time, across the "land bridge" joining the two continents, then ever southward as the melting of the North American ice cap both offered an avenue to lower latitudes—and also raised the sea level behind, cutting off their retreat.

If that scenario were correct, you'd expect human beings to emerge abruptly on the subglacial scene, there to find a plethora of big game previously unexploited. The Beringian plain vanished beneath the waves about 12,000 years ago; and sure enough, shortly thereafter a distinctive brand of human artifact suddenly appears at locations all across subglacial North America. This "Clovis culture" (named for a town on the New Mexico-Texas border where early artifacts were found) was so advanced, widespread, and well-defined that scattered, ill-defined, ill-dated evidence of possible earlier inhabitants was easy to ignore. In the absence of clear competition, "Clovis man" became the prime contender for proximate ancestor of most indigenous Americans, spreading and breeding at a ferocious rate from the Rockies east to the Atlantic and south to Tierra del Fuego.

The official myth of the anthropologists got a boost from another scientific direction beginning in the mid-1950s when linguist Joseph Greenberg started three decades of laborious lexicography indicating that all the varied languages spoken by pre-Columbian peoples of the New World fit into just three family groups: two spoken only in Alaska, the Yukon, and Canada's Northwest Territories, the other covering all other cultures of North, Central, and South America. Everything fit nicely; the Americas were settled in one grand, post-glacial wave, reaching the Caribbean before 11,000 years ago, Panama only a few hundred years later, the very tip of South America less than a millennium later.

Hints of earlier settlements and cultures continued to turn up through the decades; never definite enough to shake the smooth conformation of the established and official tale, but frequent and intriguing enough to make new generations of ambitious scholars dream of finding the unquestionable artifact, the undeniable bone with which to blow sky-high the cozy structure devised by their masters and set up shop on the heights with their own theory. Still, as recently as 1994, the most up-to-date textbook in the field states flatly that "no archeological site dating to earlier than 15,000 years ago in any part of the New World has received complete scientific acceptance."

Since those words were written, that long-established consensus has been shaken to its foundations. Russian archeologists working the river valleys of northeast Siberia have turned up what seem surely to be toolmaking sites going back not 40,000 or 50,000 but 200,000 years. Standard theory says that modern man reached Australia about 40,000 years ago. Now rock carvings have been found that date 20,000 years earlier, with signs of human occupation more than 100,000 years before that. In Europe, three wooden spears have turned up in sediments 400,000 years old. (Some critics say they were fashioned not by our own ancestors but by Homo sapiens neanderthalensis; critics of the critics say that if Neanderthals were making sophisticated weapons and hunting big game with them, it may be time to reassess "our" biologic or cultural superiority to them.)

In the New World, there have long been indications that "Clovis culture" may not have been first in the field. A cave in southwest Pennsylvania yields (hotly disputed) signs of occupation as early as 14,000 years ago; a jumble of mammoth bones out near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula seem to date from a major kill 12,000 years ago. But a thousand years one way or another doesn't put much of a crimp in the Beringia hypothesis, particularly when the sites in question are so far north. A few apparently very old sites in South America have turned up, but their discoverers have not been able to persuade leaders in the field that their evidence is credible—until now.

About 20 years ago, Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky came across traces of human occupancy in the banks of a creek purling toward the Pacific about 500 miles south of Santiago, Chile. His first cautious publications about the site in 1986 attracted little attention, but so much evidence has accumulated since that by last winter, Dillehay felt confident enough of his facts to invite a dozen leaders of his profession to inspect the site themselves.

Even the most dubious came back convinced: Monte Verde, as the site is known, was occupied by human beings 12,500 years ago at least, possibly far longer ago than that. Dillehay refuses to make too much of the fact, but fragments of worked wood turn up 100 feet or so away from his main excavation datable to more than 33,000 years ago. At a time when, according to the Beringia theory, humankind was tentatively poking into crannies on the Yukon side of the North American ice sheet, people like ourselves were already resident by a peaceful creek 10,000 miles to the south.

With new and contradictory information pouring in from other fields, the linguistic "evidence" that had helped prop up the standard theory no longer looked so convincing. Under refined DNA analysis of Native American populations as far apart as the Arctic Aleut of Alaska and the Yanomami of the Amazon rain forest, the three migrations postulated by Greenberg blurred into two, perhaps only one, while the date of that migration was getting pushed back ever farther: to 20,000 or even 25,000 years ago.

Twenty-five thousand years before the present, the famous Beringia "land bridge" almost certainly did not yet exist. Nor, on the other hand, did the great ice barrier that was supposed to have prevented movement to the south. The whole theory of a New World untouched by human hands before around 10,000 BC was starting to raise more questions than it settled.

Still, it's vanishingly unlikely that human beings got to the New World any way but on foot. And by far the most plausible route for that path remains the shallow flats between Siberia and Alaska exposed in eras of low sea level. Fortunately for the sanity of anthropologists, the Bering Sea land bridge didn't open just once but many times, as the expanding glaciers of the last great million-year Ice Age drew down sea-levels again and again. Before "Beringia," the last such drop was between about 45,000 and 55,000 years ago; exposing far less land for a far shorter time, but enough, and long enough, for hunters already resident in the area to make their way across, then, as the coastal ice abated in the ensuing 20,000-year warm spell, to make their way south and east across the continent at their leisure.

But who were "they"? As long as the Standard Theory constrained anthropological speculation, as long as archeological, linguistic, and genetic information all seemed to point to the same pattern of immigration and deployment, it was easy to ignore the oddities and exceptions that dotted the database. In 1991, the bone gurus of North American archeology, D. Gentry Steele and Joseph Powell of Texas A&M, summed up the skimpy evidence of more than 100 years of skeletal studies. Analysis of remains dating back 8,500 to 10,000 years "substantiates that their closest affinities are with Asian populations"; that the earliest skeletons exhibit "relatively long and narrow crania and small, narrow faces" compared to the broader, rounder, more "native American" crania of later remains, but that "the lack of any archaic Homo sapiens features supports the contention that entrance into the Americas was a relatively recent event."

If you were to imagine Steele and Powell's classification of

 
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