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Some Kennewick Man mysteries may last to eternity

Tom Banse
07/26/2006

Ten years ago (to this day), two hydroplane racing fans in Kennewick stumbled across a human skull. Investigators soon found a nearly complete nine thousand-year-old skeleton in the Columbia River muck. The ancient skeleton was dubbed Kennewick Man. Today in part one of a two-part series, correspondent Tom Banse summarizes what scientists know - and don't know - ten years later.

TRANSCRIPT

IT'S HARD TO GET TO KNOW K-MAN, AND IT'S NOT JUST BECAUSE HE'S DEAD.

LAPE: "You already came through three alarmed doors to get to just here."

CURATOR PETER LAPE HAS BROUGHT US TO A WINDOWLESS BASEMENT HALLWAY IN SEATTLE'S BURKE MUSEUM. KENNEWICK MAN'S BONES REST IN METAL BOXES SOMEWHERE CLOSE BY. THE EXACT ROOM IS A CLOSELY GUARDED SECRET.

LAPE: "We can only open that room with a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers who is the agency that controls Kennewick Man's bones right now."

THE BURKE MUSEUM HAS SERVED AS BONE CARETAKER FOR THE GOVERNMENT SINCE 1998. PETER LAPE SAYS HE'S A BIT "DISAPPOINTED" BY HOW LITTLE SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED FROM THE ANCIENT SKELETON.

LAPE: "We've learned a lot about laws and how much lawyers make and how court cases happen. But the bones themselves, beyond the story they told us right away, I haven't yet seen much new information."

THE PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS EXCUSE THE SLOW PROGRESS BY NOTING THE NINE-YEAR LEGAL BATTLE OVER ACCESS TO THE BONES. A GROUP OF SCIENTISTS PREVAILED IN COURT AGAINST NORTHWEST INDIAN TRIBES. THE TRIBES HAD SUED TO REBURY THE BONES.

SO HERE'S WHAT WE KNOW AFTER A DECADE OF STUDY. KENNEWICK MAN LIVED ROUGHLY 9000 YEARS AGO. HE DIED IN MIDDLE AGE OF UNKNOWN CAUSES. HE WAS AROUND FIVE FEET-NINE INCHES TALL. AND WE CAN INFER THAT HE HAD FRIENDS OR FAMILY. SOMEONE HAD TO HAVE HELPED HIM RECOVER FROM A SERIOUS SPEAR WOUND.

UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN ANTHROPOLOGIST C. LORING BRACE SAYS HE'S OPTIMISTIC WE'LL SOON HAVE AN ANSWER TO ONE OF THE CENTRAL QUESTIONS. WHO IS KENNEWICK MAN RELATED TO? VIKINGS, CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICANS, MAYBE POLYNESIANS?

BRACE: "February 23rd of 2006 I got my calipers on it."

BRACE COMPARED HIS MEASUREMENTS TO A DATABASE HE HAS OF EIGHT THOUSAND MODERN AND ANCIENT SKULLS FROM AROUND THE WORLD.

BRACE: "It ties most closely with the Ainu of Japan."

PROFESSOR BRACE SAYS THE INLAND NORTHWEST TRIBES WHO CLAIM KENNEWICK MAN HAVE OTHER ANCESTORS, POSSIBLY FROM PREHISTORIC CHINA. THAT SUGGESTS THE NEW WORLD WAS PEOPLED BY WAVES OF DIFFERENT ETHNIC GROUPS. D-N-A TESTING COULD CONFIRM OR RULE OUT LINKS. BUT GETTING A GOOD ENOUGH SAMPLE FROM THE KENNEWICK BONES HAS BEEN IMPOSSIBLE TO DATE.

OTHER SCIENTISTS ARE LOOKING INTO WHAT THE OLD MAN ATE. SUBURBAN SEATTLE ARCHAEOLOGIST JAMES CHATTERS SAYS CHEMICAL AND ISOTOPE TRACERS IN THE BONES CAN GIVE CLUES ABOUT DIET AND MIGRATION.

CHATTERS: "We do have preliminary information on the carbon that's been consistently giving us a signal that says he's either eating a lot of warm season plants -- tropical environment-like plants -- or he's eating a lot of salmon and salmon is more likely for this far north."

CHATTERS SAYS IT'S ALSO BECOME CLEAR THAT THERE'S A LOT THE BONES WILL NEVER TELL US.

CHATTERS: "We'll never know how he died. That's one certain thing. We'll never know what language he spoke. We'll never know what color his hair was or whether he had curly hair or straight. We'll never know the color of his eyes or the color of his skin."

CHATTERS SAYS HE'LL CELEBRATE THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY OF KENNEWICK MAN'S DISCOVERY BY TOASTING AN ARTIST'S RECONSTRUCTION HE KEEPS AT HOME. THE ARCHAEOLOGIST PLANS TO PUT A HAT ON THE BUST SO IT LOOKS LESS LIKE JEAN-LUC PICARD OF STAR TREK. I'M TOM BANSE IN SEATTLE.

© Copyright 2006, KUOW

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