Tough And Battered, Ancient Man Was Distance Traveler

WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) -- Kennewick Man died more than 9,000 years ago -- but the fight continues over his mortal remains.

Native Americans claim him as an ancestor and want him immediately returned to Mother Earth. But Smithsonian scientists are just out with a massive book raising big questions about his lineage.

"He's an ambassador. He's an ambassador for an ancient time period," says Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Kennewick Man is to America what the fossil Lucy is to human origins in Africa. He's already thrown into doubt some of the things we thought we knew about the migration of humans from Asia into the Americas. "This is absolutely one of America's treasures," says Owsley, pointing to a replica of Kennewick Man's skull.

Owsley had to fight for eight years in the courts just to get 16 days to examine the ancient remains. He and his fellow sleuths have just published a nearly 700 page tome describing what they've learned from him so far. "There is nothing in the archeological record that will tell you more about a past people, a way of life, than those bones," says Owsley.

The Smithsonian has returned 6,000 skeletons to Native American tribes for burial under the terms of a law passed by Congress in 1990. But the scientists here were desperate for a chance to get a few days with Kennewick Man before he was returned to the earth.

Owsley says Kennewick Man's long, narrow skull suggests he's more closely related to the ancient Ainu people of Japan than current Native Americans, whose ancestors may have migrated across the land bridge later.

A couple of college students found Kennewick Man's bones in the mud along the Columbia River far inland. But he ate mostly seals... and may have traveled along the coast from Alaska... or even Asia. All with a spear head buried in his hip... five crushed, badly-healed ribs... and a bum shoulder from pitching darts at his prey.

Scientists have figured all that already -- but they want more time. When asked if he would get another chance Owsley said that he would try, but the answer is uncertain: "I don't know."

Kennewick Man's remains will likely remain locked up in a lab in Washington State until the argument between scientist and Native Americans is finally settled.


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