inspires Falls of the Ohio crowd
with work on Kennewick Man
memorial will go up
at the Visitors Center plaza
Growing up in Madison, Ind., I was constantly surrounded
by the past the towns 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 Madisons pork industry
or New Albanys steamboats.
The Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Ind., offers visitors
a glimpse into the river valleys past, from a time when the Midwest
was a shallow ocean filled with giant armored fish and strange creatures,
through the last ice ages 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.
by Levi King
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 Centers 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 mans 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
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
isnt settled anymore. We really dont 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
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.
Back to February 2006