The long-running detective saga involving one of North America's earliest inhabitants has taken a new twist, with the discovery that Kennewick Man -- the shockingly intact 9,300-year-old skeleton unearthed in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River -- probably was a visitor to central Washington, not a longtime resident.
More likely, Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Douglas Owsley said, he came from the coast, not the arid inland valley where his remains were found. The conclusion is important in the quest to understand where the now-famous Paleoamerican came from and who his descendants might be. The bones were the subject of a decadelong fight over whether central Washington American Indian tribes had claim to the remains for reburial.
Owsley, with science writer Sally Walker, has published a book for teens, "Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World," in which he describes the process through which scientists have come to understand the mysterious man found by two youths watching a boat race. Through carbon dating and other means, analysts relatively quickly determined that the skeleton was not that of a recent murder victim but an ancient clue to how human civilization arrived in North America.
Kennewick Man was 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 7 inches, weighed 154 to 165 pounds, and had strong, powerful legs, as would someone who moved quickly in water to spear fish or hunt small animals, Owsley said.
His had not been an easy life. He had a depression in his skull above the left eye where he must have fallen or been struck by a rock; he had a healed fracture of his right shoulder; he had a shoulder injury, most likely from repeated spear throwing, identical to the kind of injury baseball pitchers often suffer; and there was evidence of a spear wound to his right hip, probably suffered when he was 15 to 20.
To try to figure out where he lived, scientists determined a nitrogen isotope value for the bones, which suggested that his diet was not high in grazing animals such as deer and elk, but much more likely based on marine mammals such as seals, Owsley said. And measurements of oxygen isotopes did not suggest he had consumed much water from the Columbia River, where his body was laid to rest with his arms at his sides.
The book also documented how scientists reached the conclusion from his skull size and shape that he was not directly related to modern-day American Indians. He was most similar to the Moriori, a Polynesian people in the Chatham Islands, near New Zealand. He is also like the Moriori's ancestors, the Ainu, who lived in coastal areas of mainland Asia 15,000 years ago. Owsley and Walker asked: "Did they leave their homeland when people from central Asia migrated to the coast?"