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No. 109: Jan-Feb 1997

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Kennewick man: a 9300-year-old caucasian skeleton in north america?

The town of Kennewick, Washington, has lent its name to this ferociously controversial skeleton. It all began when the local sheriff asked anthropologist J. Chatters to take a look at a partially buried skeleton found on the shore of the Columbia River. (Ref. 1)

"From head to toe, the bones were largely intact. The skeleton was that of a man, middle-aged at death, with Caucasian features, judging by skull measurements. Imbedded in the pelvis was a spearhead made of rock."

Chatters initially thought he had merely a "pioneer" who had met an untimely death in the Wild West!

"The real stunner came last month [June 1996], after bone samples were sent to the University of California at Riverside for radiocarbon dating. The conclusion: the skeleton of the 'pioneer' is 9,300 years old." (Ref. 2)

Actually, the skeleton may well be that of a "pioneer" but one who came from the direction of the setting sun instead of the rising sun. Of course, it is perfectly all right for Asians to have crossed the Bering Strait into North America over 9,000 years ago, but a Caucasian raises scientific and emotional problems.

"If Kennewick Man were actually Caucasian, it would be a startling discovery. So far, all of the oldest North American skeletons have been of Asian descent, although features on a few skulls have been controversially interpreted as Caucasoid. Another possibility is that the first Americans -- and their Asian ancestors -- had features that were Caucasoid. The real test of these theories would be DNA, which can pinpoint which modern populations are most closely related to the skeleton and so help identify the ancestors of early Americans and perhaps give clues to their migration patterns." (Ref. 3)

But science may not get the opportunity to make the desired DNA tests. The local Umatilla Indians insist that the bones of Kennewick Man be surrendered to them for immediate reburial, as stipulated by the North American Graves Protection Act of 1990. But if the bones are truly those of a Caucasian, does the Act apply? And when does the scientific value of a skeleton outweigh native tradition? Ironically, the Umatilla Indians scoff at the idea of Asian diffusion across the Bering Strait. They claim that they have always lived in the Pacific Northwest! (Ref. 4)

Comment. Perhaps pertinent are the Caucasian mummies recently discovered in China (SF#95) and, even more recently, 3,000-year-old graves uncovered at Baifu, just north of Beijing. These graves have yielded skeletons and artifacts with Caucasian characteristics. (Ref. 5)


Ref. 1. Anonymous; "Indian Bones," Earth Changes Report, November 1996. Cr. S.M. Johnson.

Ref. 2. Egan, Timothy; "Tribe Stops Study of Bones That Challenge History," New York Times, September 30, 1996. Cr. M. Colpitts.

Ref. 3. Gibbons, Ann; "DNA Enters Dust Up over Bones," Science, 274: 172, 1996.

Ref. 4. Lemonick, Michael D.; "Bones of Contention," Time, 148:81, October 14, 1996.

Ref. 5. Bower, B.; "Early Cross-Cultural Ties Arise in China," Science News, 150:245, 1996.

Reference. Many enigmatic human skeletons have been discovered in North America. See our Handbook Ancient Man. Information on ordering this book here.

From Science Frontiers #109, JAN-FEB 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss