Book review: Kennewick Man, a discovery that changed our understanding early humanity 

The story of 9,000-year-old bones is a scientific page turner

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On July 28, 1996, Will Thomas and Dave Deacy spent the day watching hydroplanes race on Lake Wallula, a reservoir on the Columbia River in central Washington state. The day got weird when they discovered fragments of a human skull embedded in the mud just below the river's surface along the south shore near the town of Kennewick. What happened after that is a story of mystery, intrigue, science, religion, cultural clashes, governmental fiat, duplicity and precedent-setting legal battles.

Through a stroke of luck, the county coroner called in James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist, archaeologist and paleontologist he'd used in the past to help resolve questions of skeletal forensics. Chatters carefully collected 300 pieces of bone over the course of the next month and immediately understood their importance. He arranged for and conducted forensic tests on the bones before anyone else grasped the gravity of the find.

Carbon dating came back with a potential age of the skeletal remains somewhere between 7300 and 7600 B.C. That clearly placed what came to be known as Kennewick Man in the pre-Columbian era. The puzzling thing for Chatters though was the skeleton's lack of Native American traits. Where in the world did he come from?

And that's when things really got weird.

The U.S. Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, to protect culturally sensitive burial sites from looting and to grant native tribes more control over sacred sites.

Kennewick Man was discovered on land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. When advised of the findings of Chatters' initial studies, the Corps demanded all further investigation be terminated and took possession of the skeleton. Five area tribes, the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama, Wanapum and Colville, all claimed affinity and ownership rights and stated their objections to further scientific study and their intention to rebury the bones at a secret location.

The Corps sided with the tribes and were prepared to turn the remains over to them for burial. That's when the book's editor, Douglas Owsley, the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and a resource Chatters contacted early in his investigations, and a team of prominent scientists took the U.S. government to court.

It took a decade of legal wrangling before the courts ruled against the government and in favour of the scientists; in so doing, the very essence and operation of NAGPRA was substantially altered.

In spite of repeated roadblocks, extensive scientific testing eventually took place. Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton documents that testing and its resultant findings and conclusions. Fair warning: it is not for the faint of heart. This book is densely scientific. It pulls back the curtain and reveals in detail a world all of us benefit from but few of us have a very good grasp of. It explores the limits of science's ability to answer questions and revels in its ability to pose more questions than answers. It embraces the ambiguity that leads scientists viewing the same evidence to draw different conclusions. It is, in short, fascinating. If science textbooks were this good more of us would have been lured into the field.

In the concluding chapter, the editors describe Kennewick Man in detail few would guess possible from studying 9,000-year-old bones. More importantly, they outline the unknowns that cry out for further scientific investigation as the tools available to investigators grow evermore sophisticated.

It is that most unique of books — a scientific page-turner.

Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton is published by Texas A&M University Press, 2014.


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