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Book Announcement - "Ancient Encounters" by James Chatters

NEWS from Simon and Schuster

"A gripping account of the discovery and subsequent controversy that surrounded Kennewick Man, a 9,500-year-old skeleton found in the Pacific Northwest… Chatters, with true scientific curiosity… advanc[es] theories of how Kennewick Man came to be in the Americas, what his society might have been like, and what the projectile in his pelvis might suggest about human conflict in a remote age often painted as idyllic. A fascinating chapter in the earliest American history, and an example of how far-reaching the ramifications of federal law can be."
--Kirkus Reviews

Kennewick Man and the First Americans

James C. Chatters

The 9,500-year-old remains of "Kennewick Man" are among the oldest human fossils ever found in the United States. The nearly complete skeleton is one of the most significant anthropological finds ever made in North America. Yet Kennewick Man, his brittle bones a portal into a fascinating, prehistoric world, has been studied by only one man, James Chatters. Kennewick Man has been claimed by local Native American tribes, and the federal government has seized the skeleton and placed it in storage. Off limits to the scores of other scientists who had hoped to study him, Kennewick Man thus remains an enigma whose discovery raises a host of compelling questions about America's earliest inhabitants. Given that Kennewick Man's physical characteristics are different from those of Native Americans, what does he tell us about who the first Americans actually were? What did they look like? By what route did they arrive in North America? What kind of lives did they lead?

In ANCIENT ENCOUNTERS (Simon & Schuster; June 7, 2001; Price: $26.00) James Chatters, the archaeologist and forensic consultant who was called in to examine the nearly complete skeletal fossil after it was unearthed, provides his dramatic first-hand account of this incredible discovery - and the controversy surrounding it. He raises the question whether NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) was ever meant to apply to skeletons this old and with no apparent physical or cultural relationship to contemporary Indian groups. (That question is currently the subject of a lawsuit filed by eight scientists who are disputing the government's position and urging further testing of the Kennewick Man skeleton. The trial is expected to open in federal court in Portland, Oregon, in June.) Telling a kind of anthropological detective story, Chatters recounts, in often riveting terms, his initial reaction to the skeleton and to the questions posed by its puzzling attributes, as well as his desperate efforts to learn whatever Kennewick Man might reveal - before he was taken away.

When two college students walking along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, found a "stone with teeth" that proved to be a long-buried skeletal fossil, the local coroner called in Chatters, the owner of Applied Paleoscience, a firm that specializes in forensic and archaeological consulting. Examining the bones, Chatters was immediately intrigued by apparent anomalies. On the one hand, he found the heavily worn teeth often seen in early Native American skulls. But he also saw features more common in people of European ancestry. Another mystery presented itself in the discovery of a stone spear tip embedded in the skeleton's hip. Based on these initial observations, Chatters came to hypothesize that the body was likely that of a European settler and perhaps an early example of violent conflict in the Americas. However, the radiocarbon dating which Chatters requested forced him to alter his theory significantly. Kennewick Man, it turned out, was actually 9,500 years old - making him one of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas ever found and casting doubt on the prevailing belief that Native Americans were the region's original settlers.

The implications of this discovery were astonishing, but Chatters had only just begun his research when he became aware of efforts to have Kennewick Man removed from scientific scrutiny. A coalition of local Native American tribes was demanding the skeleton be reburied, citing NAGPRA, the 1990 federal law that gave Indian tribes the right to reclaim the remains of their ancestors. Given the physical evidence that Kennewick Man was different from Native Americans, as well as the crucial insight into the early Americans he might provide, Chatters was inspired to wage a vigorous fight to oppose the reburial. He recounts the various, increasingly tense actions and arguments made by different groups involved in the conflict, and the events that led eight fellow scientists to take their own legal action. The group's efforts succeeded in temporarily preventing the reburial, but Kennewick Man was placed in government hands -- where he now remains while the legal battle rages on.

During the few weeks that Chatters had access to Kennewick Man, he was able to use forensic tools and procedures to learn about Kennewick Man's age, appearance, lifestyle, and cause of death. By studying skeletal remains of similar ages from around the world, as well as drawing on anthropological research and discussions with fellow scientists, he was also able to place Kennewick Man in a larger context, discovering some fascinating, surprising, and even poignant possibilities about the earliest, "Paleo-Americans." During the last Ice Age, groups of these Paleo-Americans appear to have traveled in waves by one of several possible routes, on water and/or on land. They also seem to have preceded modern-day Native Americans, having settled thousands of years before the first Indian ancestors arrived from northeast Asia. They likely came out of central and southern Asia, and their nearest relatives today may be some Polynesian groups and the Ainu, an ancestral population of Japan of whom fewer than one thousand still survive.

Chatters writes clearly yet compellingly about his research, at the same time sharing his own sense of puzzlement, excitement, and awe at his findings. Although he is a man of science, Chatters shows his understanding of and appreciation for the Native American position. But he also candidly describes his concern that NAGPRA is being overzealously and blindly enforced. As a scientist and, perhaps even more importantly, as a humanist, Chatters makes a plea for continued research on Kennewick Man.

In the epilogue of ANCIENT ENCOUNTERS, he writes: I am not without sympathy for the Indian position… but NAGPRA is flawed.Although it states that claims for possession of skeletons must be based on family relationship or cultural affiliation, that is not how it is being applied... The law has been co-opted - and in truth was initially demanded - by The Native American Identity Movement… I believe it is in the service of this movement, not respect for the dead or even true identity with them, that tribes have pursued claims for the earliest Americans…

To rebury Kennewick Man and his contemporaries without scientific study by people who are independent of the political process, or to rebury them now after even a full investigation with today's technologies, would in effect silence them forever. It would rob them of their rightful place in the history of the human species. Instead, we should hold such individuals as national treasures - messengers from a long-distant past who can educate and enlighten future generations who through scientific advances may be better able to hear the stories these ultimate American elders have to tell.

Written with intelligence, insight, and passion, ANCIENT ENCOUNTERS opens up a fascinating window into America's prehistoric past - and powerfully demonstrates how modern-day science can link us with our most distant relatives. Chatters' remarkable account is also a call for a common humanity because Kennewick Man reminds us how "we expanded across the globe as a morphologically uniform species just a few thousand years ago and how recent and superficial the differences between us really are. We should take that lesson to heart and emphasize not the ethnic and 'racial' distinctions that divide us but the characteristics that unite all humankind."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James C. Chatters Ph.D. is an archaeologist and paleoecologist and the founder of Applied Paleoscience, a firm specializing in forensic and archaeological consulting. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Research at Central Washington University and deputy coroner for Benton County, Washington. He has taught at the University of Washington and served as senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He lives in Richland, Washington.

ANCIENT ENCOUNTERS: Kennewick Man and the First Americans
by James C. Chatters
Published by Simon & Schuster; June 7, 2001
Price: $26.00 ; ISBN: 0-684-85936-X
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