ASHLAND, ORE. — When the coroner in Benton County, Wash., asked James Chatters to take a look at a skull that had been found along the Columbia River last summer, the anthropologist was pretty sure he was dealing with a homesteader from perhaps 100 years ago. The skeletal remains were in good shape, and the physical characteristics were of a Caucasian.
But radiocarbon dating by scientists at the University of California in Riverside quickly showed the bones to be older. A lot older - between 9,300 and 9,600 years old.
"It was pretty exciting," says Dr. Chatters. "But there was a certain amount of dread involved as well."
Indeed, the discovery of a skull with European characteristics has generated a storm of controversy among competing religious, political, and scientific interests. It could also shake the foundations of current belief about those known as "native" Americans and whether they were, in fact, the first ones here.
"I knew then that it would get very hot and heavy," says Chatters, "which it did within 10 minutes."
According to Chatters and two other experts who have preliminarily examined the remains, there is strong evidence that the so-called "Richland Man" or "Kennewick Man" (nicknamed for Washington State towns near the discovery site) is more like prehistoric people from Europe than he is like those native Americans who most scientists believe migrated from northern Asia.
"This skeleton would be almost impossible to match among any of the Western American Indian tribes," concluded Grover Krantz, an anthropologist at Washington State University.
The Indians on whose traditional land the skeleton was found (and who reject the land-bridge theory of migration from Asia) are asserting the right to immediately rebury what they believe to be their ancestor. They want to do this according to their religious beliefs in a secret place and without further scientific study.
"This is our religion, and we've been practicing this religion since time began - since we've been here," says Armand Minthorn, tribal trustee and religious leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, located in Oregon just across the river from where the skeletal remains were found by two college students. "It is not a creation myth like some scientists are saying."
The US Army Corps of Engineers (which now controls that land along the Columbia) at first was inclined to repatriate the remains to the Indians under the 1990 federal law dealing with native graves protection. But faced with two lawsuits, the Corps has backed off.
One suit has been brought by eight prominent scientists, including three from the Smithsonian Institution.
The other suit has been brought by followers of the Asatru religion, which is based on pre-Christian beliefs and practices dating back to the time when northern Europe was peopled by Scandinavian and Germanic tribes. (Asatru is an Icelandic term roughly translated as "those true to the gods.")
There are some 5,000 Asatru followers in the United States, and they are claiming that "Kennewick Man" may be their ancestor.
"What's ironic about this is that we share many of the same values and concepts as the native American religion," says Stephen McNallen, head of the Asatru Folk Assembly based in Nevada City, Calif. These include reverence for ancestors and for nature.
The controversy over native American remains - and especially the political and cultural aspects - has its roots in 19th-century attitudes toward native Americans. In 1868, the US Surgeon General ordered Army officers in the Western territories to collect Indian skeletons in order to find out (by measuring skull size) whether native Americans were inferior to whites.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of Indian remains and funerary objects have been removed from grave sites - stolen and desecrated, critics say - to become part of private collections, museum exhibits, and university laboratories around the country.
In response to Indian concerns, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. It provides that such remains and objects be returned to those shown to be lineal descendants or having close cultural affiliation. But how federal agencies make this determination has become highly controversial.
"They proceed from the assumption that anyone who died in this country prior to 1492 [the year Christopher Columbus "discovered" America] is native American within the meaning of the statue, and of course that's not necessarily true," says Alan Schneider, the Portland, Ore., attorney for the scientists. "What about the Viking explorations of the new world? What about the strong evidence that the Chinese had some colonies over here at some point?"
The scientists and the Asatru group want the tests on what is believed to be one of the oldest and most well-preserved sets of remains ever found in North America to continue, including computer measurement and DNA studies. Then, spokesmen for these two groups are quick to add, Kennewick Man should be respectfully reinterred with whatever ceremony is called for.
Federal law violated?
But Mr. Minthorn of the Umatilla Reservation says this goes against the very thing the federal law was meant to protect.
"NAGPRA has never been tested like this before," says Minthorn. "It's going to be a fight."
Chatters, the anthropologist who made the initial investigation, admits to being shaken by the discovery. And as he waits to be called as an expert witness in the legal cases, he searches for common ground.
His feeling is that the initial immigrants to North America may have intermingled and been "genetically swamped" over time by peoples who were more classically north Asian. And if that's true, he believes, then all of us on this continent - whether we call ourselves native Americans or not - are descended from Kennewick Man or his stock.
"This is an ancestor, period. And one of the ways we respect our elders, our ancestors, is to listen to the stories they have to tell us and the lessons that they can teach us," Chatters says. "Treat the remains with respect, learn the lessons, and then respectfully put him to rest again. If I were in his place, that's sure what I would want."