Brittle bones

After three years, Kennewick Man remains a mystery.

Kennewick Man celebrated the third anniversary of his resurrection quietly last week. The skeleton discovered in the Columbia River just before the last hydro race of the 1996 Tri-Cities Water Follies spent the day uneventfully in his Styrofoam storage boxes, while in a Walla Walla meeting room Native Americans and federal bureaucrats bickered over his disposal, and in a Portland courtroom lawyers and scientists pled for access to his past.

Unless Judge John Jeldercks shows more inclination to interfere in the government's custody arrangements for K-Man than he has in the past, the eight scientists who are plaintiffs in Bonnichsen vs. US are out of luck. They originally went to federal court to demand that the skeleton, perhaps over 9,000 years old, be made available for thorough scientific study—by them, of course. The judge agreed the bones should be studied.

Unfortunately, merely by filing suit the Bonnichsen plaintiffs lost their status as disinterested parties in the matter; so when Park Service archeologist Frank McManamon proposed that his own team evaluate the K-Man's remains, the judge gave the go-ahead. McManamon's team gave the bones a thorough going-over this March, but their X rays, CAT scans, and microscopic inspection weren't enough to settle the legal question: Is K-Man clearly an ancestor of modern Native Americans (and hence a candidate under federal law for "repatriation" and reburial by them) or does he belong to some other strain of humankind entirely (and is hence fair game for scientific study, experimentation, even exhibition in museums)?

McManamon went to Walla Walla last week to tell the Umatilla and other tribes claiming K-Man's bones that in order to validate their position (or invalidate it), some small portions of the remains would have to be subjected to "destructive testing"—certainly radiocarbon dating and possibly DNA analysis as well.

Many Native Americans are adamantly opposed to such testing, believing that any handling at all of human remains disturbs the spirit of the deceased. Among older Umatilla there is concern that in the three years K-Man has spent above ground, his unquiet soul has already brought disease and premature death to members of the tribe. But so far the judge has shown no more inclination to side with their position than with the scientists'. McManamon expects radiocarbon dating to be completed (at a lab not yet disclosed) before mid-September.

Although the case is far from closed, it's already clear that the scientists and their lawyers have been the big losers. Litigation is expensive, and three years competing against the bottomless pockets of the federal government have left the plaintiffs deep in debt to their attorneys.

In court last week, the plaintiffs' attorney bid for sympathy, pointing out that many of his clients are elderly and approaching the end of their "productive years" as scientists, and therefore deserve a shot at their own analysis of the remains before it's too late. There was no immediate sign of what Jeldercks thought of the legal merits of the argument.

But the plaintiffs are by no means abandoning hope. Two weeks ago, the Sunday edition of The Washington Post carried an article reviewing the three-year saga of K-Man very much from the plaintiff's position, including their assertions that the skeleton is that of an individual ethnically quite unrelated to contemporary Native Americans or to their ancestors—the very point which both government and scientists agree is in dispute.

The same scientists are also among the headliners at a scientific conference slated for late October in Santa Fe. Entitled "Clovis and Beyond," its agenda includes papers by seven of the eight Bonnichsen plaintiffs (and their lawyer) along with other leading investigators of the big archeological question posed by K-Man: Who were the first peoples to populate North America in the waning days of the last Ice Age, 20,000 to 10,000 years ago?

One name that does not appear in the lineup is that of James C. Chatters. After hitting the top of his post-discovery trajectory with a spread in People magazine last November, the freelance archeologist whose extravagant claims about K-Man's age and non-Native American ethnicity started the whole brouhaha in the first place has run into a rough patch. He was recently passed over for a full-time academic job at Central Washington University in Ellensburg ("too controversial," says one of the faculty charged with filling the position).

As if that weren't enough grief for any one man, the FBI has finally begun an investigation of the whereabouts of two important fragments of the Kennewick skeleton that somehow disappeared between the time Chatters cataloged them in late August 1996 and the time the skeleton was reinventoried at the behest of suspicious Native Americans on September 10, less than two weeks later. As the person in possession of the bones for all but five days of that period, Chatters is a prime prospect for an FBI interview.

This just in . . . the Park Service's McManamon better hope his carbon 14 lab gets results on schedule. Judge Jeldercks just ordered all parties to the suit to assemble in his chambers on September 14 to explain why, after three years, one month, and 14 days of study and litigation, we still know little more about Kennewick Man than the day he was found.

Seattle Weekly has covered the K-Man story from the beginning. Check out previous articles in our special K-Man supplement. >>

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