NA Book Reviews

NA Book Reviews


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History and analysis of Kennewick Man

Last fall, the Smithsonian Institution published Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton , the first comprehensive study of the most important human skeleton ever found in North America. This milestone is particularly significant due to tremendous political controversy and tribulations that scientists have faced in trying to study the remains and publish their findings since the skeleton was first unearthed in 1996.

The book contains 33 essays written by 52 authors on a plethora of subjects including the historical movement of humans into the Americas, curation of the skeleton, skeletal morphology and pathology, orthodontics, biomechanical analysis, injury patterns, burial context, 3D modeling, molding and casting methods, Early Holocene humans, identity through art, and human coastal migration from Southeast Alaska.


The journey that led to the publishing of this volume began nearly twenty years ago, when two college students in Kennewick, Washington, discovered a skull while walking along a shore of the Columbia River. The police were contacted followed by the county coroner, Floyd Johnson, and a local archaeologist, James Chatters, who returned to the site and uncovered a nearly entire skeleton from the mud and sand on the banks.

Chatters laid the set of more than 300 bones and fragments of skeleton out in his lab and began examining the extraordinary find. He initially thought that the skeleton might belong to an early European pioneer or trapper in the area, due to the fact that the skeleton did not look Native American. However, two factors confounded this hypothesis.

First, the skeleton’s teeth were cavity free and worn down to the roots, two characteristics of prehistoric teeth and indicators of a diet low in sugar and starch. Second and perhaps more dramatically, a stone point, perhaps belonging to a prehistoric spear or dart, appeared embedded in the hipbone. When Chatters received a carbon date for a metacarpal he sent to University of California, Riverside for analysis, he found that the skeleton was at least 9,000 years old.

The scientists whose essays appear in the new volume were able to reconstruct the individual’s height, weight, body build, and even his facial appearance. They were also able to state with confidence what his preferred foods were, what his main occupation was, and who his ancestors probably were. This information is invaluable because discoveries of skeletal evidence in North America that are more than 8,000 radiocarbon years old are not only rare but usually incomplete.

However, the full significance of the present volume cannot be comprehended without an understanding of the legal and political hurdles that its researchers were required to surmount along the way. The essay that lays out these events begins by stating that Chatters and Douglas Owsley, two of this volume’s more prominent authors, “had no inkling of what they were getting into when they made plans in August 1996 to investigate [the] skeleton.”

The riverbank where the skeleton had been found was actually federal land managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which had its own plans for the skeleton that did not include study by scientists. On August 30, 1996, the Corps took the skeleton from Chatters, had it placed in an evidence locker at a local sheriff’s office and ordered Chatters to cease further testing of the metacarpal bone.

In the meantime, local American Indian tribes, upon learning of the radiocarbon date, demanded that the skeleton be given to them for burial. In 1990, the federal government had enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires that federal agencies and institutions return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants who are members of federally-recognized tribes.

Without making any effort to investigate the facts or the tribes’ claims, the Corps therefore agreed to prevent further scientific study of the remains and announced that the skeleton would be handed over to a coalition of four tribes on October 24, 1996. Many in the scientific community protested, yet the Corps refused even to allow Owsley to examine the skeleton before it was given to the tribal claimants for reburial. On October 23, 1996, eight scientists were able to obtain a hearing in a federal court of law, where the Corps was forced to postpone the transfer indefinitely.

Thus started a lawsuit that dragged on for more than eight years, placed the safety of the skeleton in jeopardy, and saw the discovery site subsequently ruined, costing millions of dollars before the federal government was forced to give scientists access to the skeleton. The case set new limitations on what federal agencies must do, or not do, when dealing with archaeological materials and sites. These have had a strong impact on how cultural resource laws are and will be interpreted in years to come.

A major issue during the trial was whether skeletal remains can still be considered “Native American” when they are so many thousands of years old. Prior to this case, the federal government applied this classification to any item that predated European colonization, even if it lacked any verifiable relationship to present-day American Indians.

The defendants, who included the United States, the Department of Defense, the Corps, and later the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, were unable to provide the court with adequate evidence connecting Kennewick Man to modern American Indians. There was an attempt to use the oral traditions of the tribal claimants, which were said to show that the tribes and their ancestors have always lived in the area, but the court found this to be problematic since no one knows when the tribes first arose or if they are as old as they claim to be.

This is significant because, since 1990, NAGPRA has been used to dispose of some of the oldest human remains ever discovered in North America, based on the assumption that there is a descendant-ancestor relationship between any modern tribe and every prehistoric skeleton found in any area that they once occupied. This has hindered scientific investigation of human ancestry in most cases without any serious review of whether the cultural items in question are even affiliated with American Indian groups.

The questions now become: what have we been able to learn by obtaining the ability to study the Kennewick Man skeleton and was all of the legal wrangling worth the effort? Here is a selected list of conclusions that come out of the present volume:

  • Kennewick Man stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and is considered tall for his time.
  • He was wide-bodied and massive, weighing about 160 pounds
  • He favored his right arm and hand in most activities; he habitually used his fingers and thumb in a “pinch” grip that suggests he participated in flint knapping.
  • Muscle attachment sites in his right shoulder, combined with his strong right arm, suggest that Kennewick Man often held an object in front of him vertically while forcibly raising and lowering it, a motion that has been related to poling a boat or dipping a fishing net.
  • He routinely raised his arm with his elbow bent to hold something above his head—probably an atlatl for propelling projectiles.
  • He sustained a glenoid rim fracture that was probably painful and inhibited his throwing ability.
  • Years before his death, he broke six ribs; these healed improperly and remained disconnected, suggesting that his vigorous lifestyle did not allow enough time for recuperation.
  • The stone point found in his pelvis was so deeply embedded that it was probably launched at him using an atlatl; it did not cut major blood vessels or enter his abdomen but probably limited his mobility and caused him to limp for a short period of time.
  • An unusually rounded first molar suggests that he habitually held cordage between his teeth on the right side.
  • Kennewick Man was approximately 40 years old when he died, but he was not frail; his bones were strong and robust.
  • The completeness of the skeleton and lack of animal scavenging indicate that he was buried in an intentional, primary interment; he was buried on his back with his hands palm down at his sides with his face up and his chin tucked to his neck; his legs were straight and parallel; taphonomy and sediment analysis suggest that he was buried between 70 and 90 centimeters below the contemporary ground level.
  • Carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotope levels show that Kennewick Man probably subsisted on a diet based heavily on marine mammals, which were not available in abundance in the Columbia River Basin; this suggests he was a migrant from the Pacific coast.
  • His skull shows metric similarity with partially mummified remains in Nevada as well as historic Ainu in East Asia; this implies a greater range of genetic diversity among the initial immigrants into the New World.

While we do not have an adequate sample from which to draw reliable generalizations and conclusions, we can still speculate that humans living in the Pacific Northwest 9,000 years ago were able to reach well beyond 40 years of age, practiced ceremonial burial practices, were capable of migrating throughout the course of their lifetimes among different groups of people, utilized advanced marine animal hunting techniques, used projectile weapons, and consumed plenty of food to support strong bones and muscles. All of this is based on the study of the skeleton alone; no associated artifacts were found.

Owsley writes in the concluding chapter of the volume that this work is not complete. The researchers have plans to obtain a more precise age of death for Kennewick Man, use ancient DNA to track migrations and infer lineages, discover childhood dietary and geographic information through dental analysis, and utilize more types of analyses that have yet to be developed or implemented in archaeological analysis. All of this will help inform future research and analyses, both on Kennewick Man and new skeletons that may be discovered in the future.

These facts and indications serve as an example of just how much we can learn from the human skeleton and how important it is to have the ability to study such remains when they are unearthed. While it is understandable that American Indian groups wish to protect the remains of their ancestors, remains as old as Kennewick Man’s are invaluable to the entire human population, not just those living in the Pacific Northwest. These remains are part of general human history. Deciding whether to respect the wishes of possible descendants who do not want remains studied or to fill in a tremendous gap in our knowledge of human history is not an easy determination to make.

The controversy over the treatment of Native American human remains expresses a more fundamental problem of the fate of indigenous peoples under capitalism, not only in the United States, but around the world. It cannot be successfully addressed outside of the struggle to overthrow that system.

Jeff Smith, slave of Geronimo

Historical account about two boys who were taken captive by the Lipan apache and Comanche indians. One of them was sold to Geronimo, to be his slave.

New books for kids excavate facts about Pocahontas, Jamestown colony

AUTHOR: Karen MacPherson

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, the British colony in Virginia. Two new children’s books offer fascinating insights into both the British colonists and the American Indians on whose lands they settled.

‘Pocahontas’ was only a nickname

Her real name was Matoaka, but she’s known by her nickname, Pocahontas.

When the British arrived in Jamestown in 1607, she was about 11 years old, the lively daughter of the powerful Chief Powhatan, who ruled 30 tribes in eastern Virginia.

By the time she died in 1617, Pocahontas had won international fame as the person who acted as a peacemaker between the American Indians and the British settlers.

In her intriguing picture-book biography, “Pocahontas: Princess of the New World,” author Kathleen Krull combs the latest scholarship to show readers the true story of Pocahontas. It’s quite different from the highly romanticized 1995 Disney movie, yet Pocahontas’ life really was filled with adventure, tragedy and romance.

As Krull points out, there’s one major problem in writing about Pocahontas: The only information about her comes from English sources; there is nothing from Pocahontas’ perspective.

Despite this difficulty, Krull has crafted a biography that reads like a novel. While the outline of the story may be familiar, Krull imbues it with details that help readers identify with this girl who was brave enough to apparently stop her father from killing colonist John Smith.

From that moment on, Pocahontas’ life was inextricably entwined with those of the British who were trying — with great difficulty — to create an English outpost in the New World.

Krull notes that Smith praised Pocahontas’ “wit and spirit,” and that she saved his life a second time when she warned him that her father was planning to attack the Jamestown settlement.

Smith, for reasons unknown, failed to say goodbye to Pocahontas when he left Jamestown; she was told he was dead. Her visits to the English settlers ceased, and the peace that had reigned when she and Smith were friends evaporated.

A few years later, the British kidnapped Pocahontas, believing that her father would do anything to get her back. Chief Powhatan merely urged the British to treat her with respect.

Angry with her father, Pocahontas married John Rolfe

John Rolfe’s abilities as a tobacco farmer helped save the Jamestown settlement. Their marriage sparked another “Pocahontas Peace” between the settlers and the American Indians.

Pocahontas became Anglicized, wearing British-style dresses, converting to Christianity and even sailing to England to meet the king and queen. But it all proved too much, and she died in England in 1617.

Krull’s riveting story is well-matched by the luminous art of Caldecott Medalist David Diaz. Using mixed media, Diaz has created illustrations that sparkle with color.

Overall, “Pocahontas” is further proof that Diaz and Krull, who last collaborated on the wonderful “Wilma Unlimited,” are a stellar picture-book-biography team. (Ages 5-8)

Thirteen years ago, archaeologists made an astounding discovery:

They uncovered the fort built in 1607 by the British who first settled in Jamestown. Experts thought the fort had disappeared into the James River in the 18th century. Since then, more than 1 million artifacts have been excavated from the site, providing important evidence that has forced historians to rethink the story of Jamestown.

In “1607: A New Look At Jamestown,” author Karen Lange ably pulls together the newly unearthed information into a well-written narrative that easily moves back and forth between past and present.

As Lange shows, the recent discoveries at Jamestown have included the fact that the first settlers faced a severe, years-long drought. In addition, the new evidence indicates that the settlers had a flourishing copper trade with the American Indians and that some native women married settlers and lived at the fort.

Lange works these facts into her story of Jamestown’s first years, spotlighting the arduous, often-deadly conditions faced by the settlers.

Lange also looks at how the American Indians were living when the settlers first arrived, helping young readers to see what a disruption the British caused when they arrived in Jamestown.

Lange points out that the settlement of Jamestown marked the beginning of the end of the American Indians’ way of life, and that, for those in Virginia, this year’s 400th anniversary isn’t a celebration.

Ira Block’s crisp color photographs of men and women in period dress re-enacting the Jamestown story fill in further details and add extra interest for young readers. Lange also provides a helpful chronology, bibliography and index. (Ages 8-12)


Karen MacPherson, a children’s/teen librarian, writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.


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