Rediscovering the New World
Ancient bones offer glimpse into how earliest settlers lived
Editor's note: The following is a summary of this week's Time magazine cover story.
Skeletal remains found near the Columbia River show an individual with a right arm overly developed, probably from hunting and spear fishing.
(Time.com) -- It's been more than a decade since the bones of an ancient hunter were found along the banks of the Columbia River in Benton County, Washington, near the town of Kennewick.
The remains are more than 9,000 years old, putting them in scarce class that could shed light on how the New World was first settled.
Although the skeleton, known as Kennewick Man, was found in the summer of 1996, the local Umatilla Indians and four other Columbia Basin tribes almost immediately claimed it as ancestral remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
A group of researchers sued, starting a legal tug-of-war and negotiations that ended only last summer, with the scientists getting their first extensive access to the bones. And now, for the first time, we know the results of that examination.
What we're learning was worth the wait. Sophisticated forensic techniques have allowed scientists to plumb these remains for secrets of how life began in the New World. The skeleton not only reveals the personal condition of one man some 9,000 years ago, but it also offers a rare glimpse into how the first settlers may have lived and survived.
Consider, for example, what scientists can now tell us about Kennewick Man's physical attributes. He stood about 5 feet 9 and was fairly muscular. He was clearly right-handed: the bones of the right arm are markedly larger than those of the left. In fact, says forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, "the bones are so robust that they're bent," the result, he speculates, of muscles built up during a lifetime of hunting and spear fishing.
An examination of the joints showed that Kennewick Man had arthritis in the right elbow, both knees and several vertebrae but that it wasn't severe enough to be crippling. He had suffered plenty of trauma as well. "One rib was fractured and healed," says Owsley, "and there is a depression fracture on his forehead and a similar indentation on the left side of the head."
The revelations are all the more remarkable when you consider the limitations placed on the team by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the skeleton because the Corps has jurisdiction over the federal land on which it was found.
The researchers had to do nearly all their work at the University of Washington's Burke Museum, where Kennewick Man has been housed in a locked room since 1998, under the watchful eyes of representatives of both the Corps and the museum. And, says Owsley, "we only had 10 days to do everything we wanted to do. It was like a choreographed dance."
One of the big unanswered questions was whether Kennewick Man was Caucasian. The answer, it turns out, is probably no. He's more likely Polynesian or closer to Ainu, an ethnic group that is now found only in northern Japan but in prehistoric times lived throughout coastal areas of eastern Asia, say researchers.
That assessment will be tested more rigorously when scientists compare Kennewick Man's skull with databases of several thousand other skulls, both modern and ancient.
But provisionally, at least, the evidence fits in with a revolutionary new picture that over the past decade has utterly transformed anthropologists' long-held theories about the colonization of the Americas.
And thanks to a deeper understanding of Kennewick Man and much more scientific research into ancient artifacts and migration patterns, scientists are piecing together a picture of human life in this hemisphere that's far more complex and certainly much older than anyone had previously imagined.
Click here to read the complete cover story on Time.com.
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