Science and tribal religion clash in ‘No Bone Unturned’

Anthropologist fights to examine a skeleton tribe claims as ancient ancestor’s.
AP, Feb. 1, 2004

No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America’s Oldest Skeletons
• Author: Jeff Benedict.
• Publisher: HarperCollins.
• Pages: 304.
• Price: $25.95.

Kennewick Man, the ancient skeleton found in the Columbia River with a spear point in his hip, had an adventuresome life more than 9,000 years ago.

He’s at the center of more tumult in death, as American Indians backed by the federal government battle scientists for possession of his remains.

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To archaeologists, Kennewick Man represents questions for study about the first people to populate the North American continent after the most recent ice age. To the Umatilla and other Northwest tribes there is no doubt that he is their ancestor and should be reburied as quickly as possible.

Sues for right to study

The story, the conflict and the personalities involved are set forth in one of the most readable books yet about Kennewick Man, “No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America’s Oldest Skeletons,” by Jeff Benedict.

Its hero is Doug Owsley, a Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist. After he was blocked from studying the bones, he led a group of scientists in a lawsuit to save Kennewick Man for science. It’s still in the courts.

To the eye as well-trained as Owsley’s, Kennewick Man’s bones could indicate what he ate, how he lived and what life was like 450 generations ago. That spear wound, for example, apparently healed: He lived with a stone point in his hip for a while.

Skull appears Japanese

Owsley, like the first expert to examine the bones, paleontologist consultant James Chatters, could see that Kennewick Man’s skull is unlike the skulls of American Indians. It most closely matches a people from northern Japan called the Ainu.

The Smithsonian expert’s participation brought the case to the national level. Owsley had built his reputation helping the government identify remains from Croatia, Operation Desert Storm and the 9/11 Pentagon attack. also had examined the skulls of Branch Davidians from Waco, Texas; Jamestown, Va., settlers; Civil War dead; and hundreds of Indians.

To Owsley, the issue is not just Kennewick Man but whether any human remains from before the time of Columbus can be studied. He highlights the irony of the U.S government standing in the way of scientific progress.

Kennewick Man has been in the middle of a custody dispute since the skeleton was discovered in 1996 in shallow water of the Columbia River at Kennewick, Wash. The bones are being held at the Burke Museum in Seattle while a federal appeals court decides whether a magistrate was correct in deciding in favor of the scientists.

The Corps of Engineers wanted to surrender the bones, to satisfy tribes with which it had bigger environmental concerns. It was backed by the Justice Department of an administration sensitive to tribes’ growing political clout, Benedict writes.

Umatilla creationism

As a result, the federal government lined up behind Indian fundamentalism as stated by Armand Minthorn, an Umatilla religious leader: “We did not cross any land bridge like the scientists tell us. Our religion tells us we were created here. Period,” Benedict writes.

Benedict makes this all the more interesting by focusing on personalities. The first third of the book is about Owsley, portraying him as an Indiana Jones-style scientist. The middle third is about the bones’ discovery, and people including Chatters and Benton County Coroner Floyd Johnson and their initial conflict with federal authorities. The last third is about the lawsuit. Benedict’s deft portraits of lawyers make the book read like a legal thriller.

In a sense, Benedict is a literary forensics expert, looking at the aging evidence to make an issue vividly come to life.

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Associated Press, USA
Feb. 1, 2004 Book Review
Doug Esser

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday February 4, 2004.
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