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5 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

The deceased appeared to be a male Caucasian–that seemed clear from the long, narrow skull and prominent nose. He’d been dead for decades, at least, and probably longer. James Chatters, an anthropologist based in Kennewick, Washington, could tell that much from just a quick examination of the cranium and broken jawbone the coroner brought him last July. But Chatters wanted to know more. So he went to the banks of the Columbia River, where two college students had come across the skull, and managed to find most of the skeleton. The arm and leg bones suggested that the dead man came from genetic stock very different from that of the Indians who have lived in that part of the country for centuries. Chatters figured he had the body of an early settler or trader.

There was one odd note, though. Embedded in the man’s pelvis was a spear point. It was the kind used by hunters not hundreds but many thousands of years ago. And when Chatters sent a bit of bone off to the University of California, Riverside, for radiocarbon dating, the results showed that there was indeed something special about this “settler.” His bones were about 9,300 years old.

At first, news reports breathlessly called the find evidence that Europeans had reached the Americas more than 80 centuries earlier than anyone had thought. The truth, say scientists, is that Caucasoid features, while rare, are not unheard of in the remains of prehistoric Americans. They can also be seen in ancient bones from northern Asia. There’s no reason, say experts, to conclude this was some sort of Neolithic Christopher Columbus. As one of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in the Pacific Northwest, however, it could tell anthropologists an enormous amount about the lives and ethnic background of the people who first colonized the Americas.

It could, that is, if scientists ever get a chance to study it in detail. Unless a judge intervenes, the bones will be turned over to the local Umatilla Indian tribe by the end of the month for immediate burial. Says Umatilla spokesman Armand Minthorn: “Our tradition says once a body goes into the ground, that’s where it stays.” Under the Native American Graves Protection Act of 1990, museums and scientists must give Native American remains back to the tribes they came from. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the banks of the Columbia, is prepared to comply. “It’s sort of like the burning of the library at Alexandria,” says Grover Krantz, an anthropology professor at Washington State University and one of only three scientists to have studied the remains.

It’s not hard to understand his frustration. Paleoanthropologists have only a general idea of how humans first came to the Americas. It happened, most believe, around 12,000 years ago, when Asians began crossing a strip of land that connected present-day Siberia and Alaska, across what is now the Bering Strait. Modern Asians and Native Americans have enough genetic and physical similarities to make a convincing case for the link. But the details of the migration, including how many waves there were, when they happened and the routes by which wanderers subsequently moved east and south over the millennia, are still largely mysterious.

A thorough examination of these bones would certainly help fill in some of the gaps. Even a cursory look has told scientists quite a bit about how the dead man once lived. To start with, the spear point in his pelvis isn’t what killed him, at least not right away. He lived long enough for the bone to partially engulf the point. The wound may have caused a chronic infection, though, which according to a pattern of scars on several bones is what finally did him in at about age 50. There is also evidence that he had some sort of crushing injury that damaged his ribs and caused one arm to atrophy. Chatters also found advanced osteoporosis in an elbow and minor arthritis in the knees.

But without photographs, casts of the bones, chemical assays, DNA tests, C.T. scans and protein comparisons, that’s about all anyone will ever know. It’s conceivable the tests could be done before the bones are returned to the Umatillas, but that would infuriate the Indians, who take these matters very seriously and consider the tests that have already been performed to be acts of desecration. What really bothers the anthropologists is that the skeleton’s Caucasoid features suggest he isn’t a close relative of the tribe. Indeed, Washington State’s Krantz is considering a lawsuit to get the bones back on that basis.

The Umatillas plan to fight for their legal–and spiritual–right to bury the bones according to their customs and beliefs. Many of them don’t buy the Asian-migration theory; their ancestors, they say, have always lived in the Pacific Northwest. Ironically, Chatters had hoped the skeleton’s Caucasoid features would help heal some of the suspicion between whites and Indians by showing how superficial racial differences can be. Instead, he has become the focus of hostility. He returned home one night last week to find an ominous message on his answering machine–a continuous, unintelligible, angry-sounding chant. It was, he says, “clearly intended to be not very nice.”

–Reported by Dan Cray/Los Angeles

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