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Ancient Encounters

Kennewick Man and the First Americans

About The Book

In 1996, two young men found a skeleton along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. "Kennewick Man," as he became known, was brought to forensic anthropologist Jim Chatters, who was astonished when tests revealed the skeleton to be nearly 9,500 years old, one of the oldest intact skeletons ever found in North America -- and one that bore little resemblance to modern Native Americans. So who was Kennewick Man, and where did he come from?
Chatters set off to find out, but his work on the skeleton was soon halted when local Native American groups claimed the skeleton as an ancestor under federal law, and demanded the right to rebury the remains. Agreeing with their claim, the U.S. government seized Kennewick Man and put him into federal storage, where he remains to this day. So began a harsh, politically charged conflict, with scientists, Native Americans, and government agencies fighting to decide the destiny of Kennewick Man.
While this battle raged, Chatters began a quest to understand the lives and origins of Kennewick Man and his contemporaries, a quest that took him across three continents and far back in time to learn the identity of these true First Americans. Ultimately, it led him to a sense of what it really means to be human.


Chapter 1: The Stone Had Teeth

The call came early Sunday evening, July 28, 1996. On the line was Floyd Johnson, coroner of Benton County, Washington, for whom I serve as a forensic anthropologist from time to time.

"Hey buddy," he said, "I've got some bones for you to look at. Some kids were wading in the river at the boat races and found a skull. Have you got time to look at it?"

"Sure," I answered. "We're just sitting around. Bring it on over."

It was not a long wait, but however short they are, these moments between hearing of a find and actually seeing it always fill me with anticipation. Old or recent, intact or deteriorated nearly beyond recognition, bones always have a story to tell. They chronicle early growth, life experience, death, and even what has happened to the body after death. Muscle ridges, wear and tear -- arthritis, bone growth along ligaments and tendons, and fractures -- record patterns of physical activity. Diseases and injury leave their mark in patterns of bone dissolution, atrophy, regrowth, and overgrowth. Cuts and bullet holes offer mute testimony to the manner of death. Then there are the all-important clues to identity -- height, sex, age, and facial structure. All in all, it's a grand puzzle, and I love a good puzzle. But more than that, it's an introduction to someone new, someone whose story I will come to know well.

Floyd arrived carrying a five-gallon plastic bucket containing a drawstring plastic bag from a clothing store (police evidence containers are a constant source of wonder and amusement), and we sat down on the front porch. Opening the drawstring, I looked down at the first piece, the braincase, viewing it from the top. Removing it from the bag, I was immediately struck by its long, narrow shape and the marked constriction of the forehead behind a well-developed brow ridge. The bridge of the nose was very high and prominent. My first thought was that this skull belonged to someone of European descent. The bone was in excellent condition, having the tan, almost golden color of bone that has lain in the ground for some years but not long enough to deteriorate. All the breaks were fresh-looking, which told me that the skull had been complete until it was disturbed. A second fragment in the bottom of the bucket caught my eye, and I picked it up. It was the upper jaw. Thin walls of bone projected forward along the sides of the nasal opening, and an immense bony spine extended beneath it. Clearly, the nose had been huge. The tooth row also appeared to project slightly, and there were distinct deep depressions behind the ridges formed by prominent canine teeth. Called a canine fossa, this is an archaic characteristic common to many European skulls. So far, the characteristics were consistent with my initial sense that this was a white person, a Caucasian.

I turned the bone to inspect the underside, and what I saw seemed at first to be at odds with the rest of the picture. The teeth were worn flat, and worn severely. This is a characteristic of American Indian skeletons, especially in the interior Pacific Northwest, where the people ate stone-ground fish, roots, and berries and lived almost constantly with blowing sand. My mind jumped to something I'd seen when I was fourteen years old, working at an ancient site on the Snake River in Washington called Marmes Rockshelter. I saw the narrow-headed skull of a person who had died between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago being preserved in plaster for transport to the Washington State University laboratory. It stared at me from that long-ago memory through empty eye sockets. "Paleo-Indian?" came the involuntary thought. "Paleo-Indian" is the label given to the very earliest American immigrants, traditionally presumed to be early versions of today's Native Americans.

No, I thought, that can't be. The inhabitants of the Americas had had broad faces, round heads, and presumably brown skin and straight black hair. They had come over from Siberia no more than 13,000 years ago across the Bering Land Bridge and therefore resembled their modern-day Siberian relatives. This was no Paleo-Indian -- was it?

"This looks like a white person," I told Floyd, "but it also could be very old." And I explained to him what I was noticing.

"How old?" he asked.

"It would have to be more than five thousand years, because everything I know of from after that time resembles modern Indians."

"I thought it looked old. But five thousand years! Amazing," he exclaimed.

I looked again at the braincase and, noting that the sutures -- the seams between the independent growth centers of the skull -- were all closed and nearly all obliterated, realized that this was an "aged" individual. Advanced age (beyond forty-five years when using suture closure as the measure) could account for the extreme tooth wear, so I put the thought of great age out of my mind. Prehistoric Northwest Indians had usually lost nearly all of their teeth by this age, but this man had a full set.

"So what do you think?" asked Floyd. "Is it an old Indian or what?"

"I don't think so, but I need more information to be sure. Is there any more out there?"

"They said there are other bones where these came from," he replied, "but I haven't even been out there myself yet. Do you want to go take a look?"

On the way to the site of the find, Floyd told the story of the discovery to me and my wife, Jenny, who had been watching the initial exchange and came along to see how things turned out. I later learned the details from the discoverers themselves.


Saturday and Sunday had been the days of the Columbia Cup, an unlimited hydroplane race on the Columbia River that culminated a summer-long Tri-Cities tradition of parades, sports, and music events called Sunfest. (The Tri-Cities are Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco in Washington State, about 140 miles southwest of Spokane.) The national-caliber race draws tens of thousands of tourists, who flock to Columbia Park in Kennewick to watch the finals. Much of the indigenous population of the Tri-Cities flees the crowd and deafening roar of the thunder boats, but among the largely youthful audience on this day were Will Thomas and Dave Deacy of nearby West Richland.

The two college students had little interest in the races but were focused instead on the opportunities for drinking and romance that the gathering offered. They had spent the morning partying with friends, and by the time they reached the park, the races were more than half over and they were more than a bit drunk. As they walked toward the ticket booth, which charged an eleven-dollar-per-person entry fee, they paused. Young and perennially short of cash, they felt this was too steep a toll for only half a day's entertainment. They resolved instead to sneak in through a 1,000-foot-long brushy area that bordered the entrance. A beer in each hand (to avoid having to pay high prices for beer at the event), they began working their way through a dense thicket of Russian olive trees along the Columbia River shore.

After struggling for a while with the thorny trees in dizzying 108-degree heat, they moved down to Lake Wallula, which is the reservoir that now occupies this stretch of the Columbia River, and began to wade through knee-deep water a few yards offshore. About 150 feet from the end of the brush, they paused to finish their beers, which were contraband in the race-viewing area. Will thought he saw something in the water a few yards ahead. Peering into the river, made murky by the wakes of the thunder boats, he could just make out a smooth round stone about the size of a cantaloupe. It looked like a skull. This was a great chance, he thought, to spook his gullible friend, Dave.

"Look over here, dude," he joked, pointing into the water. "We have a human head."

"Get out!" Dave retorted in disbelief. He was not taking the bait.

"No, really, man, it's a head. There's a dead body here! Somebody's been murdered!"

Reaching down as Dave moved closer, Will freed the object from the mud and lifted it from the water. Beginning to chuckle at his cleverness, he turned the object over in his hands. Then his laughter died.

The "stone" had teeth.

It really was a human skull. What should they do? Will, recovering from the initial shock and now considerably sobered, thought the bones were evidence of a crime or perhaps the remains of a drowning victim. He knew they should call the police, but Dave wanted no part of that. He had other priorities. They had, after all, come to the park with a purpose. There were parties to join, so they settled on a plan. They would watch the rest of the races, finish their partying, and then report their find to the authorities. In the meantime, to protect the skull from other spectators and two small boys who were playing on the nearby bank, they hid it in the bushes.

"It was my find," Will said later. "I didn't want anybody else to find it and get the credit!"

Once the races ended and the crowd dispersed, they returned with the police and retrieved their prize. The police then called Coroner Johnson.


Floyd, Jenny, and I arrived at Columbia Park as the sun was setting. The cloudless sky was turning from azure to indigo, a rosy glow on the horizon framing Rattlesnake Mountain to the northwest and reflecting off the quieting waters of the Columbia River. Immense locust trees made gnarled black silhouettes against the darkening sky. We drove to the shore and stood with a pair of uniformed officers, taking in the scene and enjoying the cool breeze off the river. A jet boat cut a coral streak through the water off to the east, reflecting the sunset.

"Here they come," Floyd announced.

The police boat of the city of Kennewick, which manages the park, pulled in with a crew of officers and Columbia Basin search-and-rescue personnel. Floyd and I climbed aboard, and the boat pulled away. I expected a long trip and was puzzled as the boat nosed back to the bank only about a hundred yards upstream.

"What's up?" I shouted over the roar of the engines. Then, seeing an officer waving from the shore, "Did we forget someone?"

"No," someone called back. "This is where they found the skull."

I began to take in the setting, the first step in understanding what is known as the context of a discovery. The bank had been eroded by the river to a vertical cut about five feet high. Below it the land stair-stepped down to the water, indicating successive layers of increasingly fine sand and silt -- finer sediment is more resistant to erosion. A dense thicket of orchard grass, milkweed, thistle, willow, and Russian olive crowded the land surface above the bank, with patches of cattails marking pockets of standing water. Irrigation seepage or a natural upwelling of groundwater makes this part of the park unsuitable for the manicured lawns that cover most of its four-mile length.

Sergeant Craig Littrell beckoned Floyd and me downstream. As we picked our way along the water's edge, we saw a scatter of debris, rusted and encrusted with sand -- horseshoes, square and round nails, glass shards, bits of ceramic dinnerware, sawed bones, and the skulls of sheep and deer -- the kind of trash typically found near homesteads of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Looking up, I saw more of the same protruding from the bank just beneath the jumble of vegetation.

When we reached the officer, he pointed into the water, saying, "That's where they found the skull, right next to that clump of grass that just shows above the water." A row of river cobbles lay at his feet, probably stacked by the boys Will and Dave had seen playing nearby.

The light was rapidly fading, but I could just see two vertebrae beneath the water, which by now had begun to clear. To the left were pieces of leg and arm bones and a scattering of rib fragments. The way the pieces lay disarticulated on the sand, they must have washed out from somewhere nearby. Turning, I searched the cut bank for the telltale outline of a pit caught in profile or bones poking from the soil. Finding none, I returned my attention to the water.

Darkness was closing in. We decided to gather up the exposed bones lest they be rediscovered in the morning by people less responsible than Will and Dave had been. I kicked off my sandals to feel any bones that might be invisible just beneath the mud, waded into the cool water, and began picking up fragments and handing them to Floyd: vertebrae, bits of rib, bones from both arms, part of a femur (thighbone), fragments of cheekbone, and part of a lower jaw. One of the search-and-rescue volunteers turned on his powerful spotlight as darkness overcame us. The beam played through the water, casting eerie shadows from the two halves of the pelvis that lay like complex abstract forms, all curves and hollows. Near them was a rusted knife with a bone handle and pewter inlay -- a product of the late nineteenth century. We gathered these up and called it a night.

"What do you think now?" Floyd asked as he drove Jenny and me back home with the collection of bones. "Is it as old as you thought?"

"This is not an easy call," I told him. "It's going to take some time to figure out."

"What do you think so far, though, with what you have?" he asked.

"If I had to make a call right now, with the physical characteristics and the association with all that historic trash, I'd say this was a member of a pioneer family. Probably somebody who'd been buried in a family plot next to a homestead. But we're missing most of the lower jaw and some key parts of the face, and that leaves racial identification in doubt. I'll have to look at what I've got to see if the issue can be resolved. If not, we may have to come back and look some more."

"It's old, though, right? You know, not a recent death." By this he meant not within the last decade or so.

"Right. He's been there awhile."


Back at home, I took the bones downstairs to my laboratory and laid them out on a worktable to dry gradually beneath a layer of plastic. What is your story, old man? I wondered as I went off to bed, unaware of the adventure that lay before me.

Copyright © 2001 by James C. Chatters

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 13, 2002)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684859378

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Raves and Reviews

Gavin McNett The New York Times Gripping. A deeply researched and writerly account of what we know about [Kennewick Man] and his people -- and where they might have come from.

Frank D. Roylance Baltimore Sun Revealing and compelling.

American Archaeology Riveting. A strong case for continuing this research in the interest of our common humanity.

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