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From its discovery in the Columbia River three years ago, reporter Roger Downey has chronicled the epic adventures of the skeleton called "Kennewick Man": first as a pretext for a media feeding-frenzy, then as the centerpiece of a legal circus pitting celebrated scientists against Native Americans, the Corps of Engineers, and the Clinton White House, finally, at long last, as an object of rational scientific study.
The saga of Kennewick Man offers abundant opportunity to explore today's rapidly-changing scientific theories about how the Americas first came to be settled, and by whom. But it also casts much light on the deep divisions within the fields of anthropology and archeology concerning the role of politics and race in the pursuit of scientific goals, what constitutes ethical procedure in dealing with ancient human remains and living individuals, and the very purpose and direction of the scientific enterprise itself.
With an easy style that keeps you hooked from beginning to end, Downey describes the major players in this continuing debate and details the controversial scientific, religious, and political arguments surrounding Kennewick Man.
The original idea was, get together Sunday morning at Ryan Hickey's place in Richland, then everybody hop in Bill Ashley's pickup and hit on down to the river and beat the crowd. But what with the party the night before it wasn't till about 2 that Will Thomas and seven or eight friends rolled into the parking area next to Columbia Park, by which time the 31st annual Tri-City Water Follies unlimited-hydroplane races were half over, and the crowd along the mile or so of prime view riverbank on the Kennewick side of the Columbia between the golf course and the freeway bridge was packed about 50 feet deep.
If the front door was guarded, there still might be a way around the side. Thomas decided to take to the river. Persuading a couple of his buddies to show a little initiative too and stashing a cold brewskie or so under the waistband of his cut-off sweatpants, Thomas started picking a way through the shrubbery choking the riverbank between parking lot and golf course.
It was pretty nasty going. The temperature was close to 100 degrees; the humidity was verging on 100, too. Plus, the ground was mushy. And marsh grass and cattail choked the few patches of ground not blocked by the whippy grey-green tangle of Russian olive.
Once they made it to the water, the river itself was no prob. At this point the Columbia is a good half mile wide, but so shallow that you can wade out a hundred feet or more without the water getting much higher than your knees. Streamflows the previous winter had been highest in a hundred years, but now in summer the flow was sluggish, just fast enough to keep a fine mist of silt in suspension above the muddy bottom.
The gluey, adhesive mud along the bank sent Thomas wading out into the river looking for solider footing. Even 20 feet offshore the bottom wasn't much better, but the water was at least clear enough to see where you were putting your feet, and when you're barefoot and picking your way over a bottom as littered with the ditritus of a throwaway civilization as the Columbia's, that was something.
It was thus, squinting through the two-foot-deep water for safe footing, that Will Thomas saw what he thought was a smooth, round rock looming in his path, decided to screw with his pal Dave a little, and secured a modest place in the history of science of archeology. "Hey," he shouted to Deacy, reaching into the water and plucking out the rock, "we have a human head." And what do you know, that's exactly what they had: a complete human skull, rivermud oozing from its eyesockets and a double arc of brown teeth grinning in the sun.
Apart from the staff of the Tri-City Herald, few of the journalists covering the Kennewick Man story were reporters, professionally habituated to extracting nuggets of fact from more or less recalcitrant sources. Science writing, feature writing, editorial writing are all honorable branches of the trade, but they do not require or even reward the kind of devotion to the accumulation of possibly irrelevant detail which distinguishes their humbler colleagues on the sports, city hall, or police beats. If, instead, a crime reporter had been assigned to the Kennewick case, she soon would have been licking her lips and reaching for the phone.
The evidence which would have set one sniffing was abundantly available in two documents in the open court record. The first is a copy of a sketchy inventory of the Kennewick remains, belatedly submitted by Dr. Jim Chatters, completed before Coroner Johnson took possession of them at the behest of the Corps on the morning of Friday, August 30, 1996. The second, an almost exact complement of the first, is a copy of a three-page, handwritten bone-by-bone fragment inventory of the remains made in the presence of numerous witnesses on September 11, 1996 in the Battelle Institute storage locker where the remains had been secured six days before, on September 5.
In the most casual comparison of the two documents, it is glaringly obvious that bones described in detail in Chatters' survey are not mentioned at all in the later inventory. Far from being small or ambiguous fragments about which professionals might reasonably disagree, the bones in question are not only among the larger and more easily recognized even by a lay eye in the human skeleton; they are among the two or three most significant scientifically for students of the ethnic affinities of ancient humankind. If there were any ambiguity remaining, it turns out that the large bone fragments in question are clearly visible in photos and videotapes of the remains taken back in August '96 while still in Chatters's custody.
Why did it take the better part of two years for someone to compare the two inventories made just 12 days apart? Probably because it never occurred to anyone that there could be a reason to do so. But once made, all concerned were faced with a real-life version of one of the classic plot-lines of the traditional English murder-mysteries: "the locked room." From the time of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes to the present, there are really only two variations on this plot line: Either somebody did get into the box, despite locked doors, registered keys, tamperproof tape and all; or the "missing" bones were never in the box in the first place.
In mystery stories, either alternative is equally likely; in real life, where probability, opportunity, and motive count for more than elegant plotting, anyone might be forgiven for thinking that the odds lean pretty strongly toward the second. Chatters’ critics would like to see him asked for a full account of his actions during the crucial days before the remains were turned over, this time under oath.
(c) 2000 Downey
Posted August 1, 2009
I was a bit surprised to see the Amazon review section littered with one star reviews of this book. Not all, but most of them were well written and seemed to be reviews from learned men and women.
Well I certainly am not qualified to say they are right or wrong. My initial interest in the book was more of a continuing quest to learn about the divides between religion and science. And for this specific purpose, Riddle of the Bones satisfied my needs. Some of the forced hand-holding between the scientific and spiritual viewpoints that is being championed by some writers is a bit to...well, pretentious. In fact the whole exercise to mean seems hollow. I also got a good chuckle out of the arm-wrestling regarding if this was a white skeleton or Indian. How absolutely silly and absurd. That is the reason I enjoyed this book. I like to see a good ole fashioned fight. I don't really care who is right or wrong in this matter. I don't have a dog in the hunt. But I do like to see people battle over race, politics, religion, science, etc. It proves that Darwin was not right in his theory.
Since the book's publication in 2000, I have been keen to pick up on any new developments in this case. With the federal matter fairly settled in 2004, all of the developments have been in the state's arena. Still yet, basically nothing has changed.
I would hope that reviewers would consider that the author never claimed to be a archeologist. Just a simple journalist telling a simple story.
Michael L. Gooch
Posted January 15, 2001
I was very disappointed in Roger Downey's 'Riddle of the Bones.' I found the title in particular to be misleading. Downey seems more interested in the personalities and carrer aspirations of archaeologist James Chatters and the other archaeologists involved in the law suits than he does in the hard scientific issues and questions raised by the Kennewick and other finds. Downey gives cursory review to the scientific methodologies and theories but seems unable to grasp the implications and meanings (which he then projects onto the reader). He fails to understand that science is a process and this failure is manifested in his discussions of the hold that the 'Clovis first/Clovis only' school has had on the study of the peopling of the Americas. Certainly personalities and ambitions interfere with good science but the prevailing views are changing and it is due, finally, to the preponderance of the evidence. Different models for the peopling of the Americas have been around for a long time and are not just the result of the Kennewick find. His discussion of physical anthropology is facile and superficial. He does do a ggod job of describing the media attention given to Kennewick Man but does little to help the reader understand all of the issues involved and the history behind them. Lastly, I find his assertion that '... it no longer matters that many of these questions are, scientifically speaking,all but meaningless.' to be ludicrous. I would implore the reader to pass on 'Riddle of the Bones' and instead read 'Skull Wars' by David Hurst Thomas, a much, much better book and much more thorough on all points.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2000
I read this book because I knew Mr. Downey's writing through his work as a critic, journalist and playwright, not because of any special interest in or knowledge of archeology. What a delight to find a book about a totally alien subject that is such a fine and informative read! The same strengths that inform Downey's arts journalism bring what could be an arcane subject to vibrant life. In THE RIDDLE OF THE BONES, he tells a compelling story complete with rich characters, an eye for the offbeat detail, provocative ideas and a plot that is constructed like a thriller. I have no idea what feathers he's ruffled in the apparently insular world of archeology (and the comic opera world of 'Asatru'!), but he's written a concise book that is a satisfying and compelling look at 'the bones' for the person with little previous knowledge of the subject. If you've wondered about all the fuss over Kennewick Man, this is the book to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.