Millennia-old bones, and debate, hard to put to rest

Lynda V. Mapes / The Seattle Times /

NANEUM, Wash. — Wind sweeps across this lonely stretch of sagebrush, carrying songs and prayers of 10 tribes gathered here, laying ancestral remains to rest. From both sides of the mountains, they helped bless the bones of 57 individuals wrapped in white cotton muslin tied with cotton string, put away with cedar boughs and tule mats within a hand-dug grave.

Afterward, elder Avery Cleveland of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation knelt to burn tobacco on the covered grave, sending its smoke and a horse song on the rising wind.

The love and care paid to these remains, blessed and returned to earth, is what tribal leaders say they want to give Kennewick Man. But nearly two decades after one of the oldest and most intact ancient skeletons ever found in North America was accidentally discovered, Kennewick Man, more than 9,500 years old, is still in limbo.

That could be about to change.

Scientists in Copenhagen right now are doing tests using new methods that could for the first time extract some of the skeleton’s DNA, perhaps answering the question of the ancient man’s ancestry.

Tribes that want the skeleton reburied say they are going to try again within a year to change federal law to repatriate ancient remains, including Kennewick Man’s.

And a book that details the findings from years of study of the skeleton should be out, after years of waiting.

The research has urgent relevance. The case for reburial that the tribes lost in court still could be reopened and, depending on findings that emerge, could yet have a very different outcome, including repatriation of the bones to the tribes, said Gail Celmer, regional archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwest Division, in Portland.

Scientists oppose reburial, saying there is still so much more to be learned about Kennewick Man, from just where a stone point in his hip came from, to his ancient diet.

At the heart of the matter is whether the remains can be determined to be of Native American origin, as the tribes insist. If so, federal law requires that the bones be returned for reburial by tribes that claim them.

A federal appeals panel in 2004 found the bones too old, and the context of their find too void of archaeological clues, to assign membership genetically or culturally to any modern tribe.

“If there is information ... that indicates he may be Native American, it might cause us to reopen the analysis,” the panel wrote.

A fight for remains

Five Northwest tribes — Yakama, Colville, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Umatilla — fought in court for reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“We know he will come home to us someday. We never give up,” said Rex Buck, spiritual leader of the Wanapum tribe.

The tribes have continued to press their case with the Corps, which controls access to the skeleton because it was found on Corps property. Two boys wading the shallows of the Columbia River in 1996 stumbled upon the skeleton, emerging from the banks near Kennewick, and called the police.

Tribes have fought for repatriation from just about every angle. “We have looked at cemetery laws. We have looked at it as an archaeological collection,” Celmer said. “We have talked about underground curation.

“I am not sure we could guarantee that we could keep it stable or protected, but it is a novel idea.”

It was Buck who last fall invited Doug Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History who led the fight in court to study the skeleton, to the Northwest. He did it, Buck said, to hear what Owsley had to say about his research on Kennewick Man so far and to ask Owsley for his help in getting Kennewick Man back.

Owsley made no such commitment that day. But he did make headlines when he declared Kennewick Man not only isn’t an Indian, but that he’s not from the mid-Columbia at all.

Residue in Kennewick man’s bones showed he ate a lot of food from the marine environment: marine mammals, such as seals, especially, Owsley said in a private gathering with tribal members at Central Washington University.

“They are not what you would expect for someone from the Columbia Valley,” he said of isotopes detected in the remains. “You would have to eat salmon 24 hours a day and you would not reach these values.

“This is a man from the coast. Not a man from here. I think he is a coastal man.”

Buck told Owsley at the time that while he appreciated the presentation, it lacked a larger picture of how tribal members actually live, then and today.

Lamprey eel could have provided the same types of nutrients, Buck noted. “I hope you would think about some of those things too, and add that to your equation.”

It was a gentle reminder of a very different mid-Columbia, teeming with animal life even as recently as some 200 years ago, let alone during the time of Kennewick Man.

A changing river

When Lewis and Clark explored portions of the Columbia and Snake rivers in 1805 and 1806, they remarked in their journals on their amazement at the multitude of animals, including marine mammals, they saw.

Seals and sea lions — not blocked by dams, as they are today — once cruised nearly 200 miles upriver, all the way to what Lewis and Clark called the Great Falls of the Columbia: Celilo Falls.

Salmon, of course, were so plentiful that settlers later harvested them by the truckload to fertilize cleared land for farming. With 11 runs of salmon pushed to the brink of extinction by eight dams on the lower Columbia and Snake Rivers, today it is easy to forget the abundance of salmon that once fed tribes from the saltwater coast to the inland-most reaches of the Columbia watershed more than 900 miles away, said Bill McMillan, who is researching the historic and prehistoric Columbia River Basin ecosystem for NOAA fisheries. “It’s called the shifting baseline syndrome.

“Our vision of what we consider to be abundant is usually from the time period that we have experienced.”

As recently as the 1970s, Oregon fisheries managers were dosing headwater streams with Rotenone to kill off Pacific lamprey, an eel known for high nutritional value and harvested by the tribes since the melting of the glaciers.

“Kennewick Man would have feasted on this animal with a higher omega-3 fatty acid content than any marine mammal,” said Jay Miller, a Seattle anthropologist who has studied the role of lamprey in tribal cultures, which continues today.

The tribes fighting for the return of Kennewick Man have depended on lamprey for some 10,000 years for its fatty meat.

Kennewick Man’s life

Kennewick Man likely feasted from an abundant land, too, with something to eat in every season, noted Carl Gustafson, retired professor of archaeology from Washington State University. “It really wouldn’t have been a bad world,” Gustafson said.

The landscape of Kennewick Man would have looked much the same as today in the mid-Columbia. Deer, elk and maybe bison would have been around 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, as well as the plants native people still rely on: biscuitroot, bitterroot, balsamroot and all kinds of lomatiums — wild celery.

Kennewick Man probably would have traveled back and forth over the Cascades for trade, too, as well as for visiting and fun. Mastodon bone rods found in 1987 near Wenatchee, Wash., at a site dated to 13,800 years ago are believed by tribal members to be carved sticks used to play sla-hal, a gambling game that dates to the tribes’ earliest gatherings.

All that traveling, in gathering food, following trade routes and visiting for social and ceremonial gatherings is one reason that, to anthropologist Darby Stapp, of Richland, Wash., Owsley’s flat declaration that Kennewick Man was from the coast is ridiculous.

“The first time I heard him say that it was like, ‘Whoa, where are you coming from with that?’” Stapp said.

“We know more than likely people went back and forth in any scenario, but mostly I don’t see why it matters. For me, he could be from the coast, it doesn’t matter; obviously he was here, and I doubt it was for the first time, and the community obviously buried him.”

More fundamentally, he and others doubted the value of findings coming out of research on the skeleton so far, or in the future.

“It’s underwhelming; it’s one individual. You are never going to learn a whole lot about a population from one individual,” Stapp said.