Bones of Contention: Clues to First Americans?

Article excerpt

When the coroner in Benton County, Wash., asked James Chatters to take a look at a skull that had been found along the Columbia River last summer, the anthropologist was pretty sure he was dealing with a homesteader from perhaps 100 years ago. The skeletal remains were in good shape, and the physical characteristics were of a Caucasian.

But radiocarbon dating by scientists at the University of California in Riverside quickly showed the bones to be older. A lot older - between 9,300 and 9,600 years old.

"It was pretty exciting," says Dr. Chatters. "But there was a certain amount of dread involved as well." Indeed, the discovery of a skull with European characteristics has generated a storm of controversy among competing religious, political, and scientific interests. It could also shake the foundations of current belief about those known as "native" Americans and whether they were, in fact, the first ones here. "I knew then that it would get very hot and heavy," says Chatters, "which it did within 10 minutes." According to Chatters and two other experts who have preliminarily examined the remains, there is strong evidence that the so-called "Richland Man" or "Kennewick Man" (nicknamed for Washington State towns near the discovery site) is more like prehistoric people from Europe than he is like those native Americans who most scientists believe migrated from northern Asia. "This skeleton would be almost impossible to match among any of the Western American Indian tribes," concluded Grover Krantz, an anthropologist at Washington State University. Burial rights The Indians on whose traditional land the skeleton was found (and who reject the land-bridge theory of migration from Asia) are asserting the right to immediately rebury what they believe to be their ancestor. They want to do this according to their religious beliefs in a secret place and without further scientific study. "This is our religion, and we've been practicing this religion since time began - since we've been here," says Armand Minthorn, tribal trustee and religious leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, located in Oregon just across the river from where the skeletal remains were found by two college students. "It is not a creation myth like some scientists are saying." The US Army Corps of Engineers (which now controls that land along the Columbia) at first was inclined to repatriate the remains to the Indians under the 1990 federal law dealing with native graves protection. But faced with two lawsuits, the Corps has backed off. One suit has been brought by eight prominent scientists, including three from the Smithsonian Institution. The other suit has been brought by followers of the Asatru religion, which is based on pre-Christian beliefs and practices dating back to the time when northern Europe was peopled by Scandinavian and Germanic tribes. (Asatru is an Icelandic term roughly translated as "those true to the gods.") There are some 5,000 Asatru followers in the United States, and they are claiming that "Kennewick Man" may be their ancestor. "What's ironic about this is that we share many of the same values and concepts as the native American religion," says Stephen McNallen, head of the Asatru Folk Assembly based in Nevada City, Calif. …