My Next Door Neighbor

The guy next door is world-famous. He's been featured on 60 Minutes, profiled in the New Yorker and discussed on the New York Times editorial pages. When he moved here, it was such big news that TV networks as far away as Japan came to cover the story.

Yet he has never spoken a word to me, or anyone else in the neighborhood. You might think that he was some stuck-up celebrity who thought he was too good for us "U" District types, but frankly he hasn't spoken to anyone in about 9,300 years.

My neighbor is perhaps the most famous Washingtonian in the world: Kennewick Man, the skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996 and the center of a controversy that pits scientists who want to study the bones against Native Americans who want to bury the remains.

Artist's concept of Kennewick Man. Sketch by Joyce Bergen.

What did Kennewick Man look like? This artists's concept is part of the traveling exhibit "Kennewick Man on Trial," prepared by the Burke Museum and currently touring the state. Illustration by Joyce Bergen.

He "lives" at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, which is just across the street from the Alumni House and Columns' offices. That all sides could agree to place the bones temporarily at the University of Washington says a great deal about the reputation of the Burke among Native American leaders and scientists. Not only does the UW have the curatorial expertise and a climate-controlled storeroom, it also has the resources of the UW Medical Center, which provided time and equipment for X-rays and CAT-scans of some of the remains.

The UW connections go back to the first anthropologist to look at the bones—James Chatters, who got his Ph.D. at the UW in 1982. Chatters' comment at an August 1996 press conference that the skull seemed to have "Caucasoid," not Native American, features prompted the controversy that surrounds the remains to this day.

Other scientists have since determined that Kennewick Man's narrow face, long head and jutting chin bear more resemblance to South Asians, Polynesians or the Ainu of Japan than to modern Europeans or Native Americans, but that does not necessarily exclude the Ancient One as an ancestor of today's tribes.

"Even if the early people don't look like modern Indians, it's possible they are ancestral to today's Native Americans," says University of New Mexico Anthropology Professor Joseph Powell, who examined the bones at the Burke. Some anthropologists think that people traveled from Asia to North America along the coast, perhaps using boats, more than 12,500 years ago. They cite new genetic research that suggests Native Americans share a common ancestor with the native peoples who now occupy south-central Asia.

Who were the "first Americans"? With its issues of race, religion, science and politics, the controversy touches many raw nerves in our society. If Kennewick Man knows that answer, he isn't talking.


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