June 11, 2002

It’s in his bones: the story of Kennewick Man


Author and anthropologist James Chatters knows Kennewick Man better than anyone else alive. In fact, in some ways Chatters may know the 9,500-year-old man better than he knows his own friends.

Chatters says Kennewick Man was in his 40s when he died. He had arthritis in his neck. He spent a lot of time squatting. He carried a lot of heavy things.


Model of skull of Kennewick Man
Associated Press

Forensic anthropologist James Chatters holds a skull casting of the Kennewick Man next to a re-creation of the head of the ancient man, whose bones were discovered in July 1996.

Chatters spent a month studying the near-complete ancient skeleton, named Kennewick Man for the Central Washington site where the bones were discovered in July 1996. A couple of years later, as the controversies over the bones grew, as lawsuits were filed and the bones were secured away at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Chatters began writing.

His book, “Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans,” details the discovery of the bones and what became of them over the next four years.

Chatters spent much of last week in U.S. District Court in Portland, listening to the various sides make their case for what should be done with Kennewick Man. U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks is expected to rule late this year whether the bones should be available to scientists for study or turned over to five Columbia River tribes for reburial.

“I’m torn on the issue of what should be done,” Chatters said during a phone interview prior to the start of the court proceedings. “I very vehemently want to see independent scholars investigate (Kennewick Man) to the fullest. Once that’s done, I have mixed feelings about the issue.

“On the one hand I’ve been closely involved with this individual. He was with me for a full month and I got to know him very well. Part of me wants to see him back at rest in the soil that protected him for so long but I’m not sure that’s the best way to honor him.”

The ancient bones won’t be reburied soon, if ever, and developments continue to unfold. A week ago some of the bones that had been missing since the skeleton arrived at the Burke Museum may have turned up in a container in an evidence locker at the Benton County sheriff’s office. The FBI was called in and the bones were sent for testing to confirm their identity.

The fact that some bones were missing was just one issue that gnawed at Chatters as he was writing his account of Kennewick Man

“It is causing me significant consternation,” Chatters said. “He was intact when he left me. It’s a strange thing to see someone you know really well disappear chunk by chunk.”

“Ancient Encounters” begins by recounting Kennewick Man’s last day of life.

Chatters constructed the scenario from evidence he discovered in the remains of Kennewick Man and other ancient bones he examined in the American Southwest and Brazil. He says various museums and private collectors have the remains of 39 individuals known to have lived at least 9,000 years ago, although most are just bone fragments.

“There are 16 currently known that are in pretty good shape and complete enough to get a sense of what their lives were like,” Chatters said.

Life ninety centuries ago, Chatters said, was extremely difficult.

Kennewick Man had fractured his left arm and hyperextended the elbow, suffered a fractured skull as a teenager, and had a projectile point in his pelvis that probably caused a significant limp.

Kennewick Man had significant chest trauma that broke ribs, some of which never healed. Some of the bones around Kennewick Man’s left temple were damaged from an infection. He died an old man in his 40s.

“I’m certain Kennewick Man lived in a community,” Chatters said. “Otherwise there is no way he could have survived the severe injuries he survived. Someone had to take care of him when he broke those ribs. Certainly he was part of a group that migrated seasonally from one favored food gathering location to another.

“They made tools and used sewing needles for cloth rather than skins — their technology was more complex than I would have imagined, the people in the Stone Age weren’t wearing skins, they were wearing clothing.”

Another discovery that surprised Chatters when he examined Kennewick Man and others like him: The men died in their 40s and the women died in their late teens and 20s.

“There are tremendous differences between ancient men and women in nutrition,” he said. “The women are subject to things men aren’t — infection in childbirth, having to carry the children and feed them. When nutrition is limited periodically, it’s difficult to succeed and it put the women under tremendous stress. They didn’t have medicinal technology to prolong life.

“People were having problems just replacing themselves at this point on our continent. It says a lot about why they aren’t with us any more.”

Chatters’ book is the third on the market that examines the Kennewick Man controversy.

“Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity” by David Hurst Thomas, and “Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race and the Story of Kennewick Man” by Roger Downey both were released last year.

While they detail the political and ideological battles over the bones, Chatters’ book takes a more anthropologic view.

The first half of the book charts the bones from discovery to the Burke Museum. The other half, Chatters said, is about the science of the earliest Americans: “What do we know about Kennewick Man? What were his life and his landscape like? Are there others like him in the Northwest?”

What Chatters said he does know is that Kennewick Man and others who lived on this continent at the same time are substantially different from later populations. That conclusion — that Kennewick Man was not ancestral Indian — is at the heart of the disagreement being aired in federal court.

And how did Chatters imagine the last moment of Kennewick Man’s life?

“The pounding in his head soon ceased as his family’s cries died away in the distance. He could now hear only the crackling of stones on the river bottom and the music of sand in the water rushing past his ears. Only brown twilight reached his eyes. Then came darkness, silence … and peace.”

About once a month, Chatters said, he goes down to the place where a 21-year-old man wading in the Columbia River first spotted a stone that looked like a skull. Chatters just likes looking the place over again.


Susan English can be reached at (509) 459-5488 or by e-mail at


Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans
by James Chatters

Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity
by David Hurst Thomas

Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race and the Story of Kennewick Man
by Roger Downey


Washington Indian Tribes
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