Bones In Columbia Are 7,000 Years Old Tribes, Researchers Battle Over Ancient Remains
He was a tall, lanky man with a jutting nose, prominent chin and good teeth who survived at least two close calls before dying of an infection that likely stemmed from old wounds.
More than 9,000 years later, the discovery of his skeleton in a city park has started a battle between anthropologists who want to study him and American Indians who claim him as an ancestor and want him immediately reburied.
Anthropologist Jim Chatters excavated the skeleton after it was discovered July 28 in Columbia Park on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, 50 miles southeast of here.
Radio-carbon dating by the University of California at Riverside showed that the bones - the oldest complete skeleton found in the Northwest - are from sometime between 7265 B.C. and 7535 B.C., Chatters said.
“When I found out, I just kind of took a deep breath and went, ‘Oh my God, is this going to be complicated!”’ he said.
He was right.
The Colville Confederated Tribes, Nez Perce tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and the Yakama Indian Nation all claim the remains as ancestral - representative of aboriginal bands that roamed the region. Three of the tribes want the remains reburied without further study. The Colville indicate a willingness to have the skeleton studied.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, under which the tribes are seeking reburial of the remains, “wasn’t meant to apply to ones this ancient - when they can shed light on the origin of people in the New World as a whole,” Chatters said.
“It just doesn’t seem appropriate to me for one group to dictate what people can learn from something that ancient.”
“It pertains to the peopling of the New World. It pertains to understanding the evolution of our species and the movement of our species around the globe,” he said.
He has already learned quite a bit.
The man was between 45 and 55 when he died. He stood 5 foot 9, tall for his time. His diet was mainly soft - likely a lot of meat and fish. He had little arthritis in his back and leg joints, indicating he had not carried many heavy loads.
His face was dominated by his nose.
“It’s the biggest nose I ever saw,” Chatters said. “It comes virtually straight out. … It’s the kind of nose you see on an Afghani rebel.”
Most interesting, however, are the scars from old battles.
An inch-wide stone spearhead is embedded in the man’s hip. And he suffered a chest wound that broke his ribs in at least seven places and left his left arm withered.
“Either he fell on something or got whacked on by a large foot or horn or something,” Chatters said. “He was a tough, tough guy.”
The infection that killed him was likely related to the spear-point wound, he said.
“You can see that on the outer surface of the skull he had a systemic infection that caused him problems at several times,” Chatters said.
The skeleton was discovered by two local men, Will Thomas, 21, and Dave Deacey, 20, as they waded in the Columbia during hydroplane races at the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland.
Floods earlier this year may have churned the river enough to unearth the skeleton.
Armand Minthorn, a Umatilla tribal board member, said recently he felt the bones should be allowed to rest undisturbed.