1 May 2006
Kennewick Man may revolutionalize North American history
Dr. Hugh Berryman, a forensic anthropologist at Middle Tennessee State University, was one of only 11 experts from across the United States to scrutinize the bones of Kennewick Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton found 10 years ago along the Columbia River at Kennewick, Wash. "It’s one of the oldest skeletons, one of the earliest individuals that populated this continent," Berryman says. "And we have a chance to look at those remains and learn from them what they tell us about the past and who these people were."
The 380 bones are being preserved at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum. Berryman says he was between two and three feet deep in the ground. The burial miraculously saved the bones from the elements, the animals, machinery and man for centuries, and ancient deposits of calcium carbonate on the bones allowed the researchers to determine the positioning of the bones in the ground. "He was still articulated, and he appears to have been a burial. So once something is buried, that moves it at a depth that perhaps the coyotes, the wolves, scavengers could not get to it," Berryman says.
Berryman says the information that can be gleaned from Kennewick came close to being lost forever. "Since 1990, we’ve lost most of the skeletal remains from groups," Berryman says. "It’s a shame that a lot of these groups are already gone. We have no way of knowing what kind of movements there were in prehistoric times, where these people came from, who they were related to, what other tribal groups they might be related to."
What the experts were able to ascertain from their brief encounter with Kennewick is that he did not look like a Native American. In fact, Berryman says Kennewick’s facial features are most similar to those of a Japanese group called the Ainu, who have a different physical makeup and cultural background from the ethnic Japanese. Some Ainu’s facial features appear European. Their eyes may lack the Asian almond-shaped appearance, and their hair may be light and curly in color. However, this does not mean that Kennewick Man necessarily was European in origin. His features more closely resemble those of the natives of the Pacific Rim than those of Native Americans.
Berryman, a fracture expert, also documented three types of bone breaks in Kennewick—fractures that were suffered in his lifetime and then healed, fractures that happened after his burial, and fractures that occurred when the skeleton was eroded from the riverbank. Part of a spear had remained lodged in Kennewick’s right hip bone at a 77-degree angle, but, remarkably, the spear did not cause his death. The cause of his demise remains a mystery. What is known is that this athletic, rugged hunter suffered many physical traumas before finally expiring in his mid-to-late 30s. "The muscle markings are pretty pronounced," Berryman says. "He was probably a well-built individual. The bones of the right arm were larger than the left."
Age, ancestry, sex, height, pathologies, types of trauma, even whether a woman has given birth—all can be determined just from examining a skeleton, says Berryman. "Bone is great at recording its own history," he says. "Throughout your life, there are different things that you do, and they may leave little signs in the bone. If you can read those signs, it’s almost like interviewing a person."
Sources: Newswise (20 April 2006), Science Daily (26 April 2006)