Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 2 · January 2001
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skull

Ann Fabian teaches American studies and history at Rutgers University. Her most recent book is The Unvarnished Truth, a study of personal narratives. She is working on a new book about Samuel George Morton and his collection of skulls.

 

 

"At first Chatters was sure he had the remains of a long-dead Euro-American settler, a man who had come west some hundred and fifty years ago looking for a nice place to farm, or for gold and glory. But on closer examination, the forensic details contradicted Chatters's original hunch."

Bones of Contention
Ann Fabian

Part I | II | III
Mr. Owsley: If we have skeletons that are that ancient that come out of the ground and there's no opportunity for us to look at them, no opportunity to learn, then we will never have questions--we'll never answer these questions of the past.
Ms. Stahl: We're talking about our history?
Mr. Owsley: We're talking about American history, yes.

--60 Minutes, October 25, 1998

Until I heard this exchange between reporter Lesley Stahl and Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Owsley I wondered why historians should concern themselves with the peculiar saga of Techamnish Oytpamanat (the Ancient One), better known in media circles as Kennewick Man. I knew those who were arguing over the remains of the nine-thousand-year-old man were talking about archaeology, biology, human migration, and the rights of Native Americans to claim as kin an individual who witnessed the murky dawn of human habitation of the Americas. But apparently, Owsley told me, they were also talking about "American history." "[O]ur history." According to Owsley and his colleagues, who have sued the government for access to the remains, they are fighting for nothing less than the right to pursue knowledge, to search for truth. Since Owsley has taken up the cause of curiosity, enlisting all disinterested seekers of truth in his battle, I figure historians should at least pause to consider which side of this court fight they might actually like to join.

The case is a complicated one. The plaintiffs, led by Oregon State anthropologist Robson Bonnichsen, have sued the government for the right to study the ancient remains. The government and the tribal claimants counter that, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), the bones are those of a Native American and, by rights, belong to the tribes. But the plaintiffs insist that Kennewick Man is too old to be claimed as kin by anyone now alive. The law, they say, simply cannot apply to anything so old. By extension the plaintiffs' case suggests that if Kennewick Man cannot be said to belong to one group or tribe, he must somehow belong to all of us, to all humanity.

This sense of belonging to us all is, I think, what Douglas Owsley meant to explain to Lesley Stahl. As such comments suggest, when we talk about Kennewick Man, we are not talking only about American history, but about what might be called species history--the history of Homo sapiens in the Americas. Recovering the history of ancient humanity may in fact be an undertaking in which we all share an interest. But the case of Kennewick Man is teaching us that the pursuit of species history is troubled by the political and intellectual history of the last five hundred years.

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For those of you who may have forgotten the story, Kennewick Man reappeared among us in the summer of 1996. Like so many celebrated archaeological finds, the discovery of his bones was an accident, pure and simple. On a hot July afternoon, two young men sneaked into the hydroplane races on the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. There on the banks of Lake Wallula, a man-made reservoir under the control of United States Army Corps of Engineers, they happened on a human skull. Figuring their grisly find would keep through an afternoon of boat racing, they stashed the head in the bushes and watched the meet. That night they delivered the skull to the county coroner, who promptly got in touch with an independent forensic anthropologist friend, James Chatters. Later Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and picked from the mud the bones of a nearly complete human skeleton.

It was Chatters who literally put a face on Kennewick Man. The bones, he decided, did not belong to a Native American. The skull was just the wrong shape--long, not round. At first Chatters was sure he had the remains of a long-dead Euro-American settler, a man who had come west some hundred and fifty years ago looking for a nice place to farm, or for gold and glory. But on closer examination, the forensic details contradicted Chatters's original hunch. For on his way west, it seemed, the poor pioneer had run into some hostile primitives; lodged in his right pelvic bone was a projectile point of the sort favored by Stone Age hunters. The Man had also survived a few broken ribs and a minor skull fracture. Curious to verify that the remains belonged to an ancient American and not to either an Oregon pioneer or a more recent victim of foul play, Chatters sent a small piece of bone off to a lab at the University of California, Riverside. To his surprise, the lab reported back that the bone was about eighty-four hundred years old, far older than he had suspected.

We have come upon only a handful of American skeletons this old, and Chatters no doubt recognized he had in his home laboratory a prize with enormous scientific potential. If he were to be the lucky one to publish findings on the remains, the skeleton might prove quite valuable to him professionally and personally. As it turned out, Chatters had little time to enjoy his treasure. Basking in the publicity of his sensational find (and no doubt cherishing the professional rewards it could bring), the aptly named Chatters started talking to the press. Instead of using the surprising lab report to question his initial assumptions about the skull's European look, Chatters stuck to his first impression, reporting that he had found the skull of a man of European descent, an ancient American with caucasoid features.

skull

The skull of Kennewick Man. Illustration by John McCoy.

Reporters ate it up. Suddenly, the old bones took on flesh and began to resemble British actor Patrick Stewart, best known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. (Others note a resemblance to the Ainu of northern Japan, more plausible kinsmen for ancient Americans.) In the popular press, Chatters's "caucasoid," a loosely descriptive term, hardened into the racial category, Caucasian. And before we knew it, we had the story of an ancient European (with a pretty brave heart) wandering around the Columbia Plateau some nine millennia ago.

The early flurry of media attention taught Chatters that he was on to a good thing, and he quickly contacted well-placed acquaintances at the Smithsonian, offering to share the fame likely to come to those able to solve the riddle of Kennewick Man. But in his pursuit of publicity, Chatters made a few mistakes. The bones, remember, were found on land under control of the Army Corps of Engineers. About discoveries on government land, NAGPRA is quite specific: local tribes must be notified of human remains found on federal land. Furthermore, any bones more than five hundred years old are presumed to be those of a Native American. We can excuse Chatters and the local coroner who first thought the remains those of an Oregon pioneer, but once Chatters learned the age of the remains, he should have alerted the local tribes, as NAGPRA clearly required.

NAGPRA, whose provisions Chatters disregarded at his peril, is an important piece of legislation. Without it, there would be no controversy over custody of Kennewick Man. Chatters could have spirited the bones off to his lab, studying them and publishing his findings more or less as he saw fit. But in 1990, Congress had passed a law that made such independent action illegal.

One story traces NAGPRA's genesis to a mission to Washington in 1986 by William Tallbull to retrieve a sacred pipe taken from his Cheyenne people some hundred years earlier by the United States Army. Tallbull found the pipe at the Museum of Natural History, where he also discovered, quite by accident, storage bins containing the remains of some eighteen thousand individual Native Americans. Outraged, he took his case to Congress, where he found a sympathetic audience. While some museum professionals and archaeologists initially objected to a bill that mandated the return of human remains and sacred objects to tribal members, the law that finally passed represented, as Senator John McCain put it in 1990, a "true compromise" in the face of "very difficult and emotional issues . . . I believe this legislation effectively balances the interest of Native Americans in the rightful and respectful return of their ancestors with the interest of our Nation's museums in maintaining our rich cultural heritage, the heritage of all American peoples."

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