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A Conversation with James Chatters

author of
Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans

Q. When you were called in to investigate the skeleton now known as Kennewick Man, what was your first impression? Who did you think you were looking at?

A. After first examining the skull, and assuming that the skull was fairly recent, I thought he was someone of European ancestry. This impression was reinforced when I went to the discovery site and saw artifacts from an early homestead among the bones. It seemed he was most likely an early settler.

Q. What made you suspect that this first impression might be wrong?

A. The day after the discovery I was cleaning soil from the skeleton and saw a gray object, which turned out to be a stone spear-point, healed inside the pelvis. This artifact was made in a style that was most common between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago and it raised the possibility that this man might be from a much earlier time.

Q. You sent a sample of bone out for radiocarbon dating and learned that Kennewick Man was nearly 9,500 years old. How did you feel when you first heard this?

A. It was a mixture of exhilaration and disappointment. Exhilaration at being involved in the discovery of one of the most complete early human fossils yet found in the Americas. Disappointment in the knowledge that the bones were likely to be turned over to local Indian tribes before I could learn all the knowledge they contained.

Q. What happened next?

A. The government ordered me to stop all studies just a few days after the dating results were announced, and then the Coroner came for the bones. I experienced a profound sense of failure. Here I had been given an opportunity to tell the story of someone from long ago -- to share his life with present and future generations of Americans -- and I had so much left to do, so many questions left unanswered.

Q. Despite having the Kennewick Man skeleton taken away so quickly, you were able to learn a lot in the short time you had the bones. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

A. He was a tall, old man who had arthritis in his neck, a weakened left arm, and walked with a limp from the spear embedded in his hip. His chest heaved in and out as he breathed, and the old wound in his hip would erupt every so often and bleed pus down the back of his leg. He was one tough old fellow.

Q. In addition to losing such an important find, this case has also been difficult for you personally, hasn't it?

A. There have been many accusations -- that I violated various federal laws, that I intentionally tried to hurt Indian people by suggesting they weren't the first Americans, that I am somehow in league with white supremacists because I used the word Caucasoid in characterizing Kennewick Man's features. One of the most frightening aspects was when the Corps of Engineers fingered me when they discovered, more than a year after taking possession of the skeleton, that some large bones were missing. I was, and may still be, under investigation by the FBI as a result.

Q. I know you're sympathetic to the plight of American Indians and have been instrumental in seeing some of their ancestors reburied. Why did you oppose their claim for Kennewick Man?

A. I do not believe that their claim for Kennewick Man is valid. In the other cases you refer to, in which I assisted with reburial efforts, the skeletons were much more recent and could be linked directly with modern-day tribes. In many cases the bones came from cemeteries known by tribal elders. Kennewick Man comes from a much earlier time, when cultures were very different. He is very distinct in his physical characteristics. From what I can see, he is a representative of a people who are now extinct. Human fossils from the very distant past, with no discernible links to modern communities, are some of our most precious treasures. They give us a glimpse into the lives of our earliest predecessors on this continent. To bury them without learning all they have to teach us is to deny all of humanity access to the fullness of the human story. It also denies these ancient folk their rightful place in that story.

Q. Despite your observations that Kennewick Man was different from modern Indians, the government quickly announced its intentions to hand him over to local tribes for reburial. Yet why has that reburial not taken place?

A. At the eleventh hour, after exhausting all other options, a group of eight prominent archaeologists and anthropologists filed suit in federal court to stop the repatriation and to be granted the right to study the skeleton. The government has spent five years and nearly $2,000,000 fighting these eight academics and their two pro bono attorneys. In the process, the government has commissioned nearly a dozen studies of the skeleton, ancient cultures, language, and folklore to try to link Kennewick Man with modern tribes. The White House and Congress have even gotten involved.

Q. Where does the lawsuit stand now?

A. The case is currently scheduled to be heard in a Portland, Oregon, Federal Court on June 19th. Lawyers for both sides are busy drafting their briefs and preparing themselves to argue the case before the judge. He should render his opinion some time in July.

Q. Could Kennewick Man just be a very unusual American Indian, as some have suggested?

A. If he were the only individual with his characteristics, yes, that could be true. But he is not unique. We have found a second skull, which I refer to in the book as Kennewick Man's "Brother" in a local museum. He was so similar to Kennewick Man that we radiocarbon dated his bone and learned he too is more than 9,000 years old. In fact, none of the earliest Americans, North or South, resemble American Indians.

Q. You traveled throughout the US and elsewhere to study these other early human skeletons. Why did you do this and what did you learn?

A. I wanted to see how Kennewick Man fit in with other ancient Americans -- was he an anomaly or were there others like him? I found that the earliest Americans, who we now call the Paleo-Americans, differed in their appearance from all modern peoples, especially modern American Indians. The North Americans have their closest similarity to the Ainu people of Japan and to the Polynesians; South Americans are more like Australians or Africans. The men generally lived long, eventful (read dangerous) lives; the women died very young.

Q. What does this mean? Were the first South Americans from Australia and the first North Americans Polynesians or Ainu?

A. No. The earliest skeletons from Europe and Asia also look more like Australians, Polynesians, or Ainu people than they do any other modern humans. What this means is that the earliest Americans arrived before Homo sapiens had diverged into local groups we erroneously call races. They are representatives of the human prototype from which we all sprang as little as 50,000-60,000 years ago.

Kennewick Man and the other Paleo-Americans seem to be telling us that we have been wrong about the peopling of the Americas. The conventional wisdom has held that a single group of hunters from eastern Siberia crossed the Bering Land bridge and gave rise to all later peoples of the western hemisphere. It how appears that the peopling was a more lengthy and complex process, involving multiple waves of immigration by people from different parts of the Eurasian continent.

It looks like people bearing what we now think of as Asian features arrived in the Americas in a second (or third or fourth) wave of migration, apparently out of eastern Siberia. Gradually in some areas, quickly in others, people with their genetic makeup and physical characteristics came to dominate the hemisphere. The evidence from archaeological sites and human fossils indicates the Paleo-Americans are also from Asia, but probably from central Eurasia by way of the East Asian Coast, hence their similarity with the Ainu and Polynesians, who are also ultimately from that coastal region.

Q. Jim, what draws you to your profession, studying ancient human skeletons?

A. These skeletons give us the only true glimpse into the lives of our forbearers. In the words of my colleague Doug Owsley, a skeleton is a diary of a human life, recording experiences of early growth, habitual behaviors, injuries, diseases, and often the manner of death. In studying a skeleton you get to know its former occupant intimately -- get a real sense of his or her life as he or she lived it. Sometimes you even feel a presence with you -- I know that doesn't sound very scientific but most of my colleagues would say the same thing.

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