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.
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
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
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,