Exploring archaeology

Chatters inspires Falls of the Ohio crowd
with work on Kennewick Man

The memorial will go up
at the Visitors Center plaza

By Levi King
Staff Writer

Growing up in Madison, Ind., I was constantly surrounded by the past – the town’s homes, schools, churches and other buildings provide a wealth of history. Sometimes I appreciated this, while other times I took it for granted.
A recent lecture reminded me that the Ohio Valley offers more than just human history, however. Much of the area is rich with treasures from the geological past – fossils and remains of the plants and animals that inhabited the area long before Madison’s pork industry or New Albany’s steamboats.
The Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Ind., offers visitors a glimpse into the river valley’s past, from a time when the Midwest was a shallow ocean filled with giant armored fish and strange creatures, through the last ice age’s wooly mammoths, the settling of Native Americans, the exploration of Lewis and Clark, and the eventual taming of the river with complex locks and dams over the last century.

Dr. James Chatters

Photo by Levi King

Paleontologist Dr. James Chatters (right) reminded guests at his recent lecture,
history runs deep in the Ohio Valley.

I visited the park Jan. 25 to attend an archeological lecture, but the auditorium was filled with eager people of all ages. Park staff decided to hold a second lecture an hour later, so I had plenty of time to peruse the Interpretive Center’s detailed displays, rife with fossils, models, maps and diagrams. I became so engrossed in these fascinating exhibits that I had to be nudged toward the lecture hall in time for the presentation.
The Falls of the Ohio Archeological Society sponsored the lecture by Dr. James C. Chatters, a renowned forensic paleontologist from Kirkland, Wash. Chatters, author of “Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans,” recounted his involvement in a high-profile case in Eastern Washington.
In summer 1996, two young men were walking the riverbank at a hydroplane race near Kennewick, Wash., when they discovered a skull protruding from the eroded bank. They called the police, who recruited Chatters to investigate the case. Chatters combed the surrounding area and recovered 95 percent of the skeleton, quickly determining that the case was not a homicide but a “massive discovery of paleontology.” The bones washed down from the eroding riverbank to rest in the mud.
Chatters initial assessment of the bones led him to conclude that the individual was a male, 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-10 and 35 to 45 years old. Surprisingly, the skull suggested “caucasoid” descent. The skull was long, narrow, and high-crowned, with a pronounced nose, not shorter and wider with flaring cheekbones, as is common among many Native Americans. Carbon testing on the bones found them to be approximately 9,500 years old.
When local media reported these facts, some felt Chatters was implying that “whites” had settled North America before Native Americans of the pre-Columbian era. In a bizarre turn of events, white supremacist groups seized this idea to support their cause and five area Native American tribes criticized Chatters and took legal action to gain possession of the remains for reburial under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which controlled the site of the discovery and thus the skeleton, agreed to comply. Chatters and scientific colleagues quickly filed a legal suit, barring the repatriation. After eight long years of litigation, the Ninth Circuit District Court Judge sided with Chatters, concluding that “Kennewick Man” was not affiliated with any of the claimant tribes, and was protected under the Archeological Resources Protection Act, not NAGPRA. Studies on the skeleton finally resumed last year.
Since regaining access to the remains, Chatters and colleagues have learned much more about Kennewick Man and how he lived. His teeth were worn flat, meaning he probably lived on a diet of stone ground grains. The stone particles contained in such a flour were responsible for this wear. “Kenny” also had several health conditions, including a healed skull fracture, arthritis in his knee and neck – evident from the polished surfaces where bones rubbed together, and at least seven broken ribs, most of which healed improperly.
Most striking, however, was a two-inch by one-inch broken spear point deeply embedded in the front of the man’s pelvis. This pelvis had healed around the stone point, such that much of it was only visible by X-ray. Chatters speculated that the depth of the wound indicated a very high velocity, likely achieved by an atlatl.
Further, more detailed measurements of the skull and skeleton revealed that Kennewick Man most closely resembles the Ainu of Northern Japan or the native, non-European and non-mongoloid population of Siberia and Northern Asia. While very few complete skeletons as old as Kennewick Man have been found in the Americas, a few others, found in Baja California, Texas and South America, show similar traits, Chatters explained.
The implication of these discoveries is far-reaching, Chatters said. The discovery of remains of such age showing different racial makeup than pre-Columbian Native Americans forces historians and anthropologists to reconsider their view of what Chatters calls “the peopling of the Americas.”
“Before we always believed that when the waters receded at the last ice age, people crossed the Bering Strait and flowed into the Americas,” Chatters said. “What was settled when I was an undergrad student isn’t settled anymore. We really don’t understand the past of the Americas.”
Most likely, people came to the Americas in waves – some via the Bering Strait, and others by boat, landing up and down the Pacific Coast.
Chatters asserted that more definite answers to these and other questions are waiting to be discovered, through exploration and scientific progress. And who knows – the next great discovery could come from the rich fossil beds in our own back yards.

• Levi King is a Madison, Ind., native and former staff writer for the RoundAbout.

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