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Friday, April 28, 2006 - Page updated at 09:02 AM

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Old bones are telling new tales

Seattle Times staff reporter

ELLENSBURG — Behind two locked doors at Central Washington University, what might be called Son of Kennewick Man sits inside a cardboard box.

The faceless skull dates back 9,000 years — just 400 years younger than the superstar skeleton unearthed from the banks of the Columbia River. While Kennewick Man ignited a legal battle over the control of ancient bones, the skull at CWU has barely raised a ripple.

"It just misses the mark in terms of people's interest," said CWU anthropology professor Steven Hackenberger.

Nicknamed "Stickman" for the mythical beings some tribes believe once inhabited the Columbia plateau, the skull ranks among the continent's most-ancient human remains.

About 40 sets of these remains from the distant past dot the map, mostly concentrated in the western United States.

Some, like Stickman, have been largely overlooked or are the subject of custody battles with tribes who view the remains as ancestors. But in at least two cases, scientists and tribes have cooperated to learn from the oldest Americans.

These success stories haven't hogged headlines like Kennewick Man. But they are, in some ways, proving more influential in reshaping ideas about the peopling of the continent.

"In the case of Kennewick Man, I think its significance has been somewhat overblown because of the conflict and controversy," University of Oregon archaeologist Jon Erlandson said. "These other finds are equally important."

Remains yield secrets

Erlandson works on islands off the California coast, where he found stone-cutting tools up to 11,500 years old. The only way early people could have reached the islands is by boat.

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Arlington Springs Woman, the oldest documented human remains from North America, also supports the once-ridiculed notion that some people arrived by boat, rather than walking across a Bering Strait land bridge near the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago.

Three bones were discovered in 1959 on Southern California's Santa Rosa Island. It wasn't until four decades later that radiocarbon analysis showed they were 13,000 years old.

A set of ancient bones, found on an Alaska island, has yielded some of the strongest evidence yet that people who originated in Asia could have sailed or paddled to North America, then migrated south down the coast.

A human jawbone and other fragments were discovered in 1996 in On Your Knees Cave, at the tip of Prince of Wales Island, off Ketchikan. Scientists speculate the remains, which date back 10,300 years, might have been dragged into the grotto by bears or other predators.

Kennewick Man was discovered the same summer in Eastern Washington. Detailed studies on the 9,400-year-old skeleton began only last year, after nine years of legal battles with tribes who claimed "the Ancient One" as a cherished forebear.

In Alaska, there was no such delay — and no antagonism.

Local Tlingit and Haida tribes were notified immediately of the discovery, said University of Colorado anthropologist James Dixon, who works with the remains. Rather than objecting to scientific study, the tribes embraced it.

"The way we interpreted this find was that an ancestor was offering himself to us to give us knowledge," said Tlingit tribal member Rosita Worl, a Harvard-trained anthropologist and president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Several tribal members worked on the excavation, and the community has been eagerly following the results.

Isotopic analysis of the bones showed the man ate mainly seafood, even though the cave is deep in the island interior. And tools made of volcanic glass and quartz crystals from the mainland and nearby islands show people were using boats to get around the area, Dixon said.

That doesn't prove the first Americans arrived from Asia via water, but it hints at a people with deep maritime roots.

Even more exciting were DNA results from the remains.

Brian Kemp, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, succeeded where others had failed by extracting genetic material from a tooth.

His first results were so "weird" he repeated the work several times.

Kemp compared the material to a database containing DNA sequences from more than 3,500 modern and prehistoric Native Americans. He found matches in several distinct locations, mostly along the Pacific coastline from California to Mexico, Ecuador and Chile.

"My gut feeling is that this is a signature of a coastal expansion of people," Kemp said — but it's not yet definitive proof. DNA matches in Illinois show that at least some of the caveman's ancestors traveled overland, as well.

It's also still unclear where the caveman's ancestors originated. His DNA sequence is of a type generally found in Asia, but the only exact match was a member of the Han ethnic group in eastern China.

That doesn't mean Native Americans came from China, Kemp cautioned. It will take more detailed analysis of genetic material from across Asia to pin down the Alaskan caveman's roots.

DNA is hard to come by

While DNA may be the most powerful tool in the quest to understand how people settled the New World, it's limited by scarcity. Only three North American skeletons over 9,000 years old have yielded usable DNA, Kemp said.

One of the most promising candidates may never be sampled.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe of Nevada is suing to claim and rebury Spirit Cave Man, whose desiccated remains were discovered in 1940, wrapped in a woven reed mat. Not only does the 10,700-year-old mummy still retain some hair, skin and organs, but it also was buried with a wealth of artifacts, including a blanket crafted from strips of fur.

The remains have been studied extensively in the more than 60 years they have been kept at the Nevada State Museum, but DNA was never extracted, said Marc Slonim, a Seattle-based attorney for the tribe.

That makes the legal case different from Kennewick Man, where scientists argued against reburial because they hadn't had a chance to study the skeleton in depth. With Kennewick Man, the court ruled against local tribes, saying the bones were too old to establish kinship.

Now, scientists hope to gain permission for DNA testing from the Corps of Engineers, which controls access to Kennewick Man. An earlier attempt to extract DNA from a bone failed, but the teeth may prove more fruitful.

Does skull shape matter?

Even without DNA, some scientists argue that ancient skeletons do hold clues to the origins of the first Americans. Doug Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution, and others say very old skulls — including Kennewick and Stickman — have a longer, narrower braincase than the skulls of modern and pre-contact Native Americans.

That leads them to suggest multiple waves of migrants, possibly from different parts of Asia, may have populated the continent. Some of those lines died out while others gave rise to modern Native Americans, the theory goes.

But the value of skull measurements is controversial. Diet and activity — such as throwing a spear repeatedly — can affect bone size and shape.

Seattle-area anthropologist Jim Chatters ignited much of the controversy over Kennewick Man when he said the skull looked more "Caucasoid" than Native American. The first scientist to examine the skeleton, Chatters has been pondering the role of environmental factors in skull shape ever since.

"It's something that's been bothering me for a long time," he said.

At a recent archaeological conference in Seattle, Chatters said patterns of tooth wear suggest ancient Americans might have processed sinew or other fibers by pulling the strings through their teeth. That would have given them very powerful jaw muscles, which attach to the skull and may partially explain the long heads of Kennewick man and his brethren.

"If you put that degree of stress on the skull, is it potentially changing the shape of the skull?" Chatters asked.

Chatters was also the first to suspect the great age of the Stickman skull, which he saw in the CWU collection while seeking a colleague's opinion on the Kennewick Man bones. No one at the college could remember where the skull had come from, and there were no records.

So Chatters had the bones dated and used bits of evidence such as pollen grains and volcanic ash to narrow down its origins to an area north of Kennewick. He's detailing his findings in a scientific paper.

When it's published, he said, perhaps the little-known skull in Ellensburg will enjoy its moment in the scientific spotlight.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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