The Stick Man cometh

Kennewick Man's flack is poised to unveil his latest "discovery."

THE BONES AND STONES trade is abuzz with rumors about this weekend's Northwest Anthropological Conference in Spokane. Star attraction on the three-day bill is none other than Dr. James C. Chatters, whose deft manipulation of the media back in the summer of 1996 made international tabloid stars of himself and of "Kennewick Man," the 9,000-year-old skeleton that fell into Chatters' capable hands during a boat race on the Columbia River.

Chatters has hinted to insiders that in his hour and a half session this Saturday morning he'll be offering a worthy successor to K-Man—maybe even a close cousin. Named by Chatters after a mischievous Sasquatch-like spirit in Plateau Indian mythology, "Stick Man," who appears to consist mainly of a skull and a lot of speculation, doesn't match the earlier find for glamour. However, Chatters has gotten some well-known names to sign onto the presentation with him: the University of Tennessee's Richard Jantz, a specialist in divining racial affiliations from the shapes of ancient bones, and freelance radiocarbon dater Thomas Stafford.

An early radiocarbon date is particularly important in Stick Man's case because his skull wasn't found "in the field" by trained scientific investigators but in an artifact collector's private museum. But the skull's lack of "provenience" (archaeojargon for exact location in datable strata) is more than made up for by the fact that it was originally found on private land, and hence is exempt from all the legal impediments to thorough testing that have made study of Kennewick Man (found on federal land) so hard to bring about.

Chatters has known about the Stick Man skull for more than three years, hinting to those promising secrecy of a wonderful discovery from somewhere "up north" that would confirm the age and (hotly disputed scientifically) "caucasoid" conformations of K-Man's skull and frame. Going public with it now may have less to do with the time it took to nail down its age than with the way that the federal government, after more than a year of ludicrous bumbling, has taken charge of the K-Man inquest (and its attendant publicity value).

Whatever Chatters may have got hold of, he can be reasonably certain of an agreeable amount of controversy. Also appearing at the Spokane meeting is a group representing the Lummi nation, which will be presenting a full-afternoon session devoted to last year's still-unexplained kidnapping by a licensed archaeologist of more than 40 Native American skeletons from a construction site near Blaine, Washington. The next day features a morning session hosted by the Cultural Resources office of the Umatilla Reservation devoted to ways Indians and others can work together to make sure incidents like Blaine don't happen again. Neither group is likely to be silent regarding Chatters' latest "discovery"—private property or not—or his appropriation of a figure from Northwest Indian mythology to lend it a little spurious romance. But from the scientific presenters' point of view, the more fuss the better. If the publicity flames lit by Kennewick Man are dying down, perhaps Stick Man can reignite them.

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