Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kennewick Man from coast, anthropologist says

Kennewick Man apparently was just a visitor to the area of present-day Kennewick, the latest results of the study of his skeleton indicate.

Douglas Owsley, a Smithsonian Institute anthropologist, gave an update of scientific findings Wednesday at Archaeology Days at Grant County Public Utility District in Beverly. He led the court battle to study the 9,300-year-old skeleton found along the Columbia River in 1996.

An isotopic analysis of Kennewick Man's bones shows he most likely was eating a coastal diet based on marine proteins, such as seals, Owsley said.

"It's very confusing and very unexpected," he said.

The study determined a nitrogen isotope value for his bones, which would be low if he were eating animals that grazed, but high if he were eating a diet of meat higher up the food chain.

Grazers such as deer and elk "were just not in his world," Owsley said.

If Kennewick Man had been eating large quantities of salmon, he still would not have had the nitrogen isotopes detected, Owsley said. Neither would small marine life, such as clams, give such a high reading, he said.

Other isotopic results also contributed to indications of a coastal home for Kennewick Man.

The carbon isotopes detected are a signal that he had a marine-based diet. And oxygen isotopes, which usually are tied to the water a person drinks, are not what would be expected from drinking Columbia River water, Owsley said.

Results are being compiled from studies that began with about two weeks of inspections and testing by more than a dozen scientists in 2005 and 2006 at the University of Washington's Burke Museum in Seattle.

A court battle that lasted almost a decade, progressing to the U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals, cleared the way for the studies when the court agreed the bones could not be considered culturally affiliated with modern Northwest tribes.

The tribes disagree, maintaining that their ancestors, including Kennewick Man, were the original inhabitants of North America. They believe they should have possession of the remains.

Owsley and other scientists say they believe Kennewick Man is related to a different people than Native Americans, finding his skull features more similar to the ancient coastal people of Asia. He has similarities to Polynesians, indicating not that he is Polynesian, but that they share ancestors, he said.

"I have extremely high regard for the remains," he said. "We can learn from the skeleton who he was and what his life was like."

Full ancient skeletons, rather than bone fragments, are rare, he said.

"He was a really tough guy," standing about 5-foot-7 or -8 inches tall and weighing about 160 pounds, Owsley said.

His skeleton showed a fractured, but healed, skull and broken ribs, that also had healed but not perfectly. He likely had to continue moving to find food, rather than resting while the ribs were healing, he said.

A projectile point in his hip could have been an injury suffered at the same time his ribs were broken in a crushing blow to the chest, but there's no way to know, Owsley said. The hip had healed around the bone before his death.

Scientists don't know how he died, finding nothing worse in his skeleton at the time of his death than indications of an abscessed tooth.

Kennewick Man was strong, so strong that the bone in his right arm was curved, and he likely was an accomplished atlatl, or spear thrower, Owsley said. He had a right shoulder injury seen in people who throw javelins, he said. The force of throwing had left a piece of bone floating in the joint.

That would have been a big problem for a right-handed hunter, he said.

His teeth had so much wear that initially there was some thought that he might be 50 years old. But further studies have shown marks on his teeth consistent with contaminants, such as fine silt, that wore them down.

Owsley believes Kennewick Man's age may be about 39 or 40, given the near absence of arthritis, although more testing would be needed to confirm that, he said.

Scientists continue to believe he was buried near where his bones were found on the Columbia River in Kennewick.

In fact, they are certain he was buried face up with his chin tucked down and his hands at his sides with the palms down based on where calcium carbonate deposits were found on his bones.

High water the summer of 1996 apparently undercut the bank of the Columbia River, and his bones washed out of the soil, possibly just a week before they were found during Water Follies. Another high-water period could have washed his bones away, Owsley said.

What initially were thought to be animal marks on the bones, Owsley believes were pocking from debris in the water hitting them. His left side, which would have had more wave action, is not as well preserved as the right, Owsley said.

Owsley has just released a book co-written by Sally Walker called Their Skeletons Speak -- Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World. It's intended to provide research findings for a general audience or students of about high school level.

He continues to edit an in-depth scientific book with chapters written by different scientists called Kennewick Man: Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton that is expected to be published in about 14 months.

He's continuing to work for more access to Kennewick Man, pressing the Army Corps of Engineers to allow scientists to conduct a nondestructive X-ray test on the projectile point embedded in the hip. The test could determine what it is made of, an indication of where it was made and where Kennewick Man might have been when he was injured.

More studies also are needed to determine how long Kennewick Man lived, and taking a small sample of a tooth could yield information about where he grew up, Owsley said.

Cary, Annette. 2012. “Kennewick Man from coast, anthropologist says”. The Bellingham Herald. Posted: October 11, 2012. Available online:

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