Who would have thought that a couple of college kids looking for some fun at the boat races would have ignited a decades-long battle over some bones?
But that's just what happened when two students stumbled on a skull along the bank of the Columbia River in 1996, leading to the discovery of one of the most ancient sets of bones on the continent.
The skeleton was quickly dubbed Kennewick Man and, to the shock of many, his remains were close to 9,000 years old. Native Americans already had claimed him as their own and had plans to rebury him. Scientists had to sue to gain access to the bones, and a federal court ruled in their favor.
Kennewick Man, they said, had a story to tell. And after years of research and study, now he does.
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Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton, is a 688-page book with 48 authors and 17 contributors. It is said to be "the most complete analysis of a Paleo-American skeleton ever done," according to Smithsonian Magazine, which dedicates 12 pages to the story of Kennewick Man in its current edition.
The story of Kennewick Man is remarkable on many fronts.
Scientists were given limited access to the remains -- just 16 days -- and were rebuffed at subsequent attempts to gather more data from the bones by their custodian, the Army Corps of Engineers. Still, they were able to tell us a lot about the mysterious man who had been buried by his people along the mighty river.
He lived off seals and marine mammals and drank glacial-melt water. He was right-handed. The spear-point found still lodged in his hip was an injury he likely sustained as a teen. He lived to be about 40, overcoming numerous injuries scientists found buried in the secrets of his bones.
For a scientific tome, the reading is fascinating, especially for those of us from the community where Kennewick Man was found. Every one of the 300-plus bones recovered at the site sheds light on the lifestyle of this ancient man, a sturdy guy at 5'7" and 165 pounds.
We won't share his whole story with you here; you can buy the book at Amazon.com and read the Smithsonian article.
But we will share one more fact that shows why due diligence needs to be taken when remains are found, not rushed back to Native American tribes on instinct or guilt.
Yes, the remains of Native Americans have been treated badly in many cases. Museums have spent years returning bones and artifacts wrongly obtained. Desecration of ancient burial sites is a shameful part of our country's history.
But the study shows that Kennewick Man is most likely of Asian descent, a coastal hunter unrelated to the native tribes of our region.
Had the bones been turned back to the tribes as originally planned by the Corps without further study, Kennewick Man's story may never have been told. The Corps quickly entombed his burial site with 1 million pounds of fill and rock for erosion control, even though Congress was working on a bill to preserve the site, ending the chance for discovery of any other artifacts.
The odds were stacked against the revelations that Kennewick Man had to share had it not been for the tenacity of the local coroner, the local archaeologist he called on for help and some nationally-recognized anthropologists and attorneys who fought for access to the ancient skeleton.
The story unfolded like a mystery novel, with twists and turns most wouldn't expect from an innocent find at a hydroplane race, with lie detector tests and accusations over misplaced femurs among the drama. He still has much more to tell if scientists are someday allowed more access.
What will become of the bones is still unknown. The tribes still claim them and want to bury them in a secret location.
We hope the story of Kennewick Man has taught many lessons, among them that cooperation and fact-finding are important when discoveries like this are made, rather than a rush to a conclusion that could forever eliminate the opportunity for new findings.
Thank you, Kennewick Man, for sharing your story with us. Someday we hope to hear the rest.