Jawbone found near Kennewick Man site, raising specter of controversy

Oct 25, 2011

Federal archeologists are investigating a very old jawbone that turned up Monday along the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash. The human remains were found a short distance from where Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996 and sparked a decade-long legal conflict.

The battles over Kennewick Man have scientists being extra cautious with the new discovery.

The jawbone with six worn teeth was spotted in shallow water by a jail work crew doing routine park cleanup. Kennewick Police and the Benton County coroner quickly determined the bone belonged to an adult human, but was too old to connect to any modern crime.

Archeologists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took jurisdiction as the landowners.

Connected to Kennewick Man?

Army Corps spokeswoman Gina Baltrusch says it is pure "speculation" to connect the single bone to any era or people at this point, or to Kennewick Man.

"Basically, too soon to know. We'll follow the law. And we're treating these remains with respect," she said.

A retired archeologist who investigated the ancient Kennewick Man fears the Army Corps will quickly turn the bone over to a local tribe for reburial without sufficient study. But Jim Chatters says it's not worth it to him to do battle over one bone.

Tribal leaders argue strenuously that their spiritual traditions demand such remains be put back to rest as soon as possible. 

Discovering Kennewick Man

A pair of college students discovered the skeletal remains of Kennewick Man in the summer of 1996, while watching hydroplane races. The existence of these bones sparked controversy over scientific conventional wisdom about early humans in the Americas and over who had rightful claim to the bones, the U.S. government or the local Umatilla Indians of the Columbia plateau. 

Radiocarbon testing indicates the remains of Kennewick Man are about 9,300 years old, making the individual among the oldest humans identified so far on this continent. The date of these bones questions the conventional wisdom of how and when early humans arrived to American continents.

Upending established theory

The Seattle Times reported: The most well-known theory is that the earliest Americans used Beringia, an ice-free corridor among giant glacial sheets thousands of years ago, to reach North America.

The timeline in this theory goes:

  • First, plants grew.
  • Second, the animals followed.
  • Then about 13,000 years ago, prehistoric humans made the journey down that Bering Land Bridge, beginning the long migration southward.

But the Kennewick Man is one of a growing number of ancient skeletons that some scientists say are so unlike ancestors of modern-day Native Americans that they may represent an entirely new branch on the human family tree.

Where exactly did they come from?

The remains of these Paleo-Americans, according to some archeologists, closely resemble people who lived in southern and central Asia, while modern Native Americans more closely resemble people from Northeast Asia.

This leads to a few possibilities. Paleo-Americans could be an earlier wave of migrants from Asia, a single wave of migrants who settled down and changed over time, or a group totally unrelated to modern-day Native Americans.

The discovery of these skeletons has furthered scientific debate over the exact origin and history of early Native American people.

Legal, political battle

Political controversy followed after the discovery of the Kennewick Man. A legal battle sparked over who had the right to the bones: the scientists, who wished to study the remains, or local Native American tribes who claimed the remains were those of their ancestor. 

The Umatilla Indians of the Columbia plateau claimed Kennewick Man as their ancestor.

The Umatillas filed suit to get the remains so they could give them a proper burial. Tribal leaders said they had that right under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires that human remains and artifacts be returned to Indian tribes that show a cultural link.

After nearly ten years of legal battles, the scientists won the right to study what has proved to be one of the oldest, most complete skeletons ever discovered in North America. A federal judge finally concluded the bones were so old that it's impossible to establish a link with modern-day Native Americans, according to the Seattle Times.

New findings

Since winning the legal battle, scientists have discovered new findings and disputed older claims about Kennewick Man, such as the way he was positioned in the earth, whether he was buried, and whether he had chronic injuries in the hips.

But the most contentious issue of all, whether he is indeed an ancestor to modern-day Native Americans or a new branch on the human family tree, won't be settled for some time.

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