For nearly a decade, scientists and Northwest tribes fought bitterly over whether to bury or study the 9,500 year old bones known as Kennewick Man. Now, after years of careful examination, scientists are releasing some of their findings to tribes at meetings this week in Central Washington. As correspondent Anna King reports, Kennewick Man grew up on the coast.
Kennewick Man was buff. I mean really – beefcake. So says Doug Owsley. He’s the head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and led the study of the ancient remains. Owsley can read the bones like we might read a book. He looks for ridge lines that indicate which muscles Kennewick Man used the most and what he was doing with them. First off? He had muscular legs like a soccer player – likely from running, trudging and hunting.
Owsley: “In his leg structure he’s certainly accustomed to very rapid movement, quick movement and you can read that in those muscle ridges.”
He also likely had killer arms, because he threw a spear with the aid of a lever like tool. Owsley says Kennewick Man was so strong in his right arm he was like a pro baseball pitcher, and the bones show he got today’s equivalent of a career-ending sports injury.
Owsley: “If it happened to a contemporary baseball pitcher, they’d need surgery. And so it took off a piece of bone off the back side of the shoulder joint that would have been essentially loose. And I’m sure that caused great complications in his ability to throw.”
Owsley says Kennewick Man who stood about 5’7” and weighed about 170 pounds. And he wasn’t any stranger to pain. The evidence shows "K-Man," as he’s known in Eastern Washington, got hit on the head a few times and stabbed with a basalt rock point that imbedded in his hip.
Owsley’s research includes this big revelation: Kennewick Man wasn’t from the southeast Washington region along the Columbia River where he was found. Instead, Owsley said he was from the coast. The scientists can tell from chemical tests on tiny bits of his bones and the enamel on his teeth that he ate mostly marine animals.
Owsley: “Once a tooth erupts it doesn’t change. So that tiny, tiny piece of tooth enamel with just hitting it with the same sort of process, you can tell where he grew up as as a child.”
Owsley and forensic artists came up with a new sculpture of what Kennewick Man looks like. The remains known to tribes as the Ancient One, draws his ancestry from the ancient peoples of Asia, Owsley says. The scientist describes the moment he looked at the new reconstruction of Kennewick Man’s face.
Owsley: “He’s so lifelike. And when you look at those eyes, those eyes have such a piercing glare. I think this man has a story to tell us. There is very little known about that time. And he’s a true messenger.”
Owsley has a new young-adult book out with author Sally Walker. It’s called “Their Skeletons Speak.” Owsley plans to release a much larger scientific text soon.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio