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Ancient ancestors

By on December 28, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

Further research changes our thoughts about long ago people of the NW

By Rod Molzahn

The two most important archeological discoveries in Washington State were found by accident. 

Neither the East Wenatchee Clovis cache nor the remains of “Kennewick Man” were found as a result of scientific exploration. 

Both of the finds pitted Native American beliefs against the scientific community and the courts.

Moises Aguirre and Mark Mickles were digging a trench for an irrigation pipe in an East Wenatchee orchard just east of Pangborn Field. It was May 27, 1987. They were about 20 inches deep when they turned up a stone spear point.

It was the first of 68 objects unearthed at the site over the next three years. 

When the first points and tools were found the thinking was that they were the work of local Native Americans in a more recent past. An amateur archeologist put that idea to rest when he identified the objects as products of the 12,000 to 15,000 year old Clovis culture. 

The artifacts had been placed on top of a layer of ash from the last Glacier Peak eruption. That allows for the conclusion that they are 13,000 years old.

The trove of recovered objects includes spear points, a chopper, scrapers, prismatic blades, bifacial knives, an engraving tool, three flaked stone axes or adzes and 12 bone rods made from mammoth or mastodon limbs. The purpose of the rods is not clear.

In April of 1988, a year after the discovery, Washington State University archeologist Peter Mehringer led the first significant excavation of the site and discovered 22 objects. Five were removed. The rest were left in place. 

All the cutting tools, spear points, knives, scrapers and axes are beautifully fashioned from semi-precious stone — agate, chalcedony and chert. Properly flaked, these stones have an edge sharper than a surgeon’s blade.

In October of 1990, Michael Gramly, a New York based archeologist, led another excavation. Gramly was known for his insistence that the Clovis people were not in any way related to modern Native Americans. He also believed that scientific excavation and study was more important than Indian cultural heritage. 

Colville tribal members believed that the site was very likely a burial place and that further excavation could unearth a grave with an ancestor that should not be disturbed. They organized a protest gathering at the site demanding that the state withdraw the archeological permit they had granted to Michael Gramly. 

When the group arrived at the dig site Gramly met and talked with them from behind a 10-foot, chain-link fence. He wore a bulletproof vest. 

It’s not clear how or when the first Clovis people reached North America. They may have crossed to Alaska over the Beringian land bridge from East Asia then down the kelp highway along the narrow band of ice-free land that was the Pacific Coast. 

Another theory holds that they came from Western Europe by boat to Eastern Canada then spread west and south from there. 

Maybe they came from both directions since it seems that they appeared in many parts of North and South America at about the same time.

The only human remains ever recovered from a Clovis site was a skeleton of a male child between 12 and 18 months old. It was found at a burial site in Montana in 1968. It had been buried with a number of artifacts and sprinkled with red ochre dust thought to have religious significance.

College students Will Thomas and David Deacy were floating in tubes along the left bank of the Columbia at Kennewick’s Columbia Park on July 28, 1996 watching the hydroplane races on the river. 

In a shallow, calm-water inlet they found a human skull on the bottom. They reported it to law enforcement. It was first thought that the skull belonged to an early white settler from the late 1800s.

Archeologist James Chatters was asked to examine the skull. He quickly realized it was much older than the 1800s. 

Chatters started searching the inlet where the skull was found and he began to turn up additional bones from the skeleton. In the course of several searches he found 350 bones, almost an entire skeleton. Only the sternum and a few small bones from the feet and hands were missing. 

The Army Corps of Engineers took possession of the skeleton since it was found on land in their jurisdiction. So began the more than 20-year saga of “Kennewick Man” or “The Ancient One” as Native Americans named him.

“The Ancient One” was likely traveling with a group of his people when he died. They buried him on a low bench along the river. They placed him on his back with his head elevated, stretched out with his hands, palms down, at his sides. 

He was close to 40 years of age, about 5-foot, 7-inches tall and weighed about 160 pounds. He had all his teeth though they were well worn — mostly from an abrasive diet that included a good amount of sand and grit. One tooth was badly abscessed and that infection might have been what killed him.

He had suffered serious injuries in his life, evidenced by numerous healed fractures to his head, limb fractures and five broken ribs. 

Deep in his right hip, encased in the bone, was a stone point from either a spear or an atlatl dart. It was 2 ¼-inches long and ¾-inches wide. “The Ancient One” had lived for years with that chunk of stone in his hip. He must have limped as he walked along the mid-Columbia shoreline 9,000 years ago. 

Nitrogen isotopes from his bones show that for his last 20 years he ate little, if any, meat. His diet had been high in seafood — big saltwater fish and sea-going mammals. 

Five central and north central Washington tribes claimed a relationship with “The Ancient One” and wanted his remains reburied immediately. 

Archeologists and anthropologists claimed he had no relationship to the tribes and sued for the right to study the bones. The courts sided with the scientists finding that the tribes had no evidence to support their claims. 

In October of 1988 “Kennewick Man’s” remains were placed in the custody of the Burke Museum on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. 

Dr. Douglas Owsley, physical anthropologist and lead Smithsonian Institution researcher, was given the opportunity to study the remains. 

Owsley found that “Kennewick Man” was physically strong and muscular with a highly developed right arm and shoulder. Bone damage in his shoulder is consistent with what professional baseball pitchers suffer over a career. He must have thrown something hard and often, like a spear or harpoon. 

Owsley concluded that “Kennewick Man” was closely related to Polynesians and not at all related to modern Native Americans.

In 2015, scientists in Denmark made a breakthrough in DNA research. They were given a small piece of bone from “Kennewick Man” and DNA samples from several members of the Colville Confederated Tribes. That evidence showed that, without a doubt, “Kennewick Man” was more closely related to Native Americans that any other living population.

Two years later, February of 2017, after 21 years of extended legal battles, “The Ancient One’s” remains were returned to his descendants, the tribes of Central and North Central Washington. 

Michael Marchand, Colville Tribal chairman, expressed what all the tribal members felt. “To me, he’s one of my great grandfathers. He’s one of my blood relatives.” 

The following day “The Ancient One” was wrapped in buckskin and buried in the presence of 200 Columbia Plateau tribal members.

Four years earlier, DNA evidence made clear that the Clovis child buried in Montana and his people were direct ancestors of many of today’s native people in North, Central and South America. 

The child’s remains and the artifacts found with him were reburied at his original gravesite.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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