Plaintiffs' October 1, 1999 Status Report to the Court
AFFIDAVIT OF DOUGLAS W. OWSLEY
Alan L. Schneider, OSB No. 68147
Paula A. Barran, OSB No. 80397
Attorneys for Plaintiff
ROBSON BONNICHSEN, et.al.,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY, et.al.,
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
USDC No. CV 96- 1481 JE
STATE OF Virginia County of Salem
AFFIDAVIT OF DOUGLAS W. OWSLEY
I, Douglas W. Owsley, being first duly sworn, do depose and state as follows:
1. I am one of the plaintiffs in the above-entitled case.
2. I am a Curator and the Division Head of Physical Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Among my other duties, I supervise a bioarchaeological/forensic investigation team that is composed of specialists experienced in the excavation and examination of human remains. One function of this team is to recover and analyze newly discovered human remains for law enforcement and other government agencies (both federal and state). During the' course of my forensic and personal research activities, I have made taphonomic observations on hundreds of human remains. These include not only remains found at crime scenes, but also remains accidentally encountered during archaeological investigations and during construction projects and other land disturbing activities. The age of those remains has ranged from recently deceased to historic (such as Civil War and early Colonial period) and prehistoric (hundreds or thousands of years old). Further details of my professional background and qualifications are provided in earlier affidavits filed with the Court in support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Order Granting Access to Study and Plaintiffs' Motion for Immediate Response re Study Request.
3. The purpose of a taphonomic investigation is to reconstruct the postmortem processes that have affected an organism's remains (such as human skeletal remains or an animal bone assemblage) from the time of death to the time of recovery. Such assessments can help to determine the cause of death. The primary objective, however, is to determine the processes that contributed to the organism's location and condition at time of recovery. How was it transported to and deposited at the location where it was discovered? What factors led to its complete or partial preservation over time? To what extent was it modified by environmental or other factors after death? Because of the complexities of the issues involved, taphonomic investigations benefit from multidisciplinary input from various specialists such as archaeologists, geologists, physical anthropologists, biologists, botanists, chemists, skeletal photographers and so on.
4. Press reports indicate that Dr. McManamon's study team has concluded that Kennewick Man was intentionally buried by other humans. Reasons given for this conclusion include: (a) the condition of the skeleton; and (b) the absence of evidence of any carnivore damage. Reference was also made to the purported presence of red ocher on the skeleton. Based upon my observations of the skeleton and my understanding of the stated purposes of the government's first phase studies, I question whether there is sufficient data at hand to warrant the conclusion of an intentional burial by other humans. In my opinion, it is premature to publicize any conclusions concerning the cause of deposition without a thorough taphonomic analysis of the skeleton. In the following discussion, I will focus first on the question of red ocher. The skeleton's condition and the absence of carnivore damage will be addressed separately because they raise somewhat different issues.
5. Dr. McManamon's study team has claimed to have found evidence of red ocher on the skeleton. If there is red ocher on the skeleton, it must be very faint. I did not detect its presence during my inventory of the skeleton, and it is my understanding that Dr. Chatters did not detect any either. Red ocher is a form of iron oxide. When present on a skeleton, it often imparts a distinctive red or reddish brown color to the bones. Attachment 1 to this affidavit is a color photograph from an Archaic period burial in Maine. It illustrates the deep staining and vivid colors that can be produced by red ocher. Those conditions are not present on the Kennewick skeleton.
6. Even if the government's study team is correct that there are faint traces of iron on the skeleton (or parts of the skeleton), their significance has yet to be established. First, it must be determined whether the substance is the result of a cultural (i.e., human) practice or environmental causes (either while the skeleton was in the ground or while it was in the river). Elemental analysis of the bone surfaces may be able to assist in resolving this question. Second, even if the substance is the result of a cultural practice, it does not automatically follow that it was applied as part of a burial ceremony. Nonburial uses of red ocher by historic-era native peoples are well documented. Such uses include body decoration, as a cosmetic substance, a deodorant, an insect repellent and for waterproofing hides. Evaluation of stain patterns on individual bones and throughout the skeleton might help to distinguish between such nonburial practices and ocher that may have been used as part of a burial ceremony.
7. Since the government's study reports have not been released, I am not certain what is meant by the government's references to the skeleton's "condition." I am certain, however, that during my inventory of the skeleton I did not observe any condition (or conditions) that clearly point to the cause of the' skeleton's deposition at the discovery site. Its relative completeness is certainly a factor that should be considered, and the same is true of the apparent lack of carnivore damage. However, they are not sufficient, either alone or in combination, to distinguish a human-caused burial from a deposition due to natural causes (such as a flood, earthquake, or mud flow). The scientific literature contains many examples of intact unscavenged human skeletal remains that were buried as a result of natural as opposed to human causes.
Intact unscavenged remains are also commonly found of animals, both modern and extinct (such as mammoths, mastodons, camelids and so on). I have personally examined relatively complete skeletal remains that were buried by natural rather than human causes.
8. The Kennewick skeleton was recovered from a disturbed context, and according to my inventory notes is fragmented into approximately 350 pieces. The cause of its deposition below the surface of the ground cannot be determined solely by viewing the many bone fragments of the skeleton in their present state (i.e., as separate pieces rather than as reassembled skeletal elements). Such a limited examination cannot reveal all of the different circumstances that need to be evaluated in order to determine the cause of the skeleton's deposition. Some of the factors that should be considered (in addition to completeness and lack of carnivore scavenging) include the following:
9. To answer questions such as these, it is necessary to obtain and evaluate as many different lines of evidence as possible. At a minimum, the investigation should include the following steps:
10. The above discussion is not intended as a complete list of all conditions that should be assessed in a taphonomic investigation of the skeleton. Other procedures and possible lines of evidence may be suggested as more is learned about the skeleton and its condition during the course of the investigation. Because of the circumstances of the Kennewick skeleton's discovery, the task of reconstructing its taphonomic history is a complex undertaking. All possible lines of evidence must be explored and evaluated, and even then what is learned may be less than definitive. Until a complete investigation has been conducted, however, any conclusions concerning the cause of the skeleton's burial must be considered premature.
11. As noted above, I have not seen the reports of the government's first phase study team. As a result, I do not know what specific observations they made and what data they recorded. However, it is my understanding that they were not assigned the task of conducting a complete taphonomic investigation of the skeleton. For example, the government's first phase studies apparently did not include reassembly and subsequent photography of all of the major skeletal elements. Without this protocol, it would be highly likely that important clues could be missed concerning the skeleton's taphonomic history. Since the government's studies were not complete, reexamination of the skeleton will be necessary. Such a reexamination should be as comprehensive as possible so all needed data will be obtained and documented. '
12. I would welcome the opportunity to participate in such an investigation with a team of other qualified scientists so we can assess the claims made by the government. During my inventory of the skeleton, I was not able to make the observations and obtain the data needed to reconstruct its taphonomic history. Among other things, I did not have access to the equipment and to the technical and scientific experts required for appropriate investigation of this important skeleton. I have no personal interest one way or the other in the outcome of the question of whether Kennewick skeleton was buried by human or natural causes. My only interest is to learn the truth about this important individual from the early prehistory of North America. Anything I learn will be made available to other scientists, the government and interested members of the public. I do feel quite strongly, however, that statements about the skeleton's origins and history should not be made without an adequate empirical basis. Such potentially misleading statements cloud the record and interfere with public understanding and appreciation of Kennewick Man's place in American prehistory.
13. I am concerned that our ability to reconstruct the skeleton's taphonomic history may have been impacted by the studies conducted by the government. It is my understanding that the government's first phase studies included removal of sediments from the skeleton and the mixing of sediments from different bones. As previously noted, important clues concerning the depositional history of a skeleton can sometimes be learned from an analysis of its associated sediments. When I inventoried the skeleton, I observed that two vertebrae and two metatarsals were fused together by ancient sediments. These observations were documented in my inventory report, and I cautioned that care should be taken to avoid loss of any potential information that might be obtained from the sediments. Since these sediments represent original deposition sediments, they could be important in reconstructing the skeleton's original site context. I hope they have not been disturbed and mixed with other (possibly more recent) sediments. To minimize such potential risks of lost data, taphonomic analysis of the skeleton should have preceded the government's first phase studies.
14. The government's recent removal of bone samples for radiocarbon dating may also have resulted in the loss of potentially important data. It is my understanding that the samples selected by the government consisted of the right first metatarsal and a 12 gram section from the proximal left tibia. I have a number of concerns about the choice of these samples and the manner in which they were obtained.
15. I understand that the government has claimed that the procedures it used for sampling the skeleton are "standard" or "conventional" for radiocarbon dating. I do not know what textbooks or other references defendants may have consulted in developing their sampling procedures. However, advice contained in textbooks is suitable only for routine cases. For complex bone dating problems such as those presented by the Kennewick skeleton, advice should be obtained from experts who are familiar with all of the latest developments in dating technology. Once that advice has been obtained, it should be followed.
16. As a scientist, I believe that it is indefensible for the government to claim that Kennewick Man was intentionally buried by other humans while it continues to block investigation of the discovery site. Site stratigraphy and geology can provide important information concerning the skeleton's original context. Without good site data, it will be difficult to determine whether the skeleton was deposited by human action or natural causes. In addition, the site may contain artifacts or other materials that could help to identify Kennewick Man's cultural background. Nonetheless, the government still refuses to permit study of the site or to provide any logical reasons for its refusal.
17. The need to conduct a thorough taphonomic investigation of the skeleton is not a new issue in this case. I raised this issue in my March 4, 1997, affidavit that was filed with the Court in support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Order Granting Access to Study. The Kennewick skeleton was found in a disarticulated condition out of its original depositional context. As a result, its full significance for American prehistory cannot be adequately determined without an understanding of how it was deposited at the site and what forces acted on it over time. The government should have been aware of these considerations before it began to destroy potentially important evidence contained in and on the skeleton.
DATED this 24th day of September, 1999.
SUBSCRIBED and SWORN to before me this 24th day of September. 1999.
Return to Affidavits & Declarations