New Book on Kennewick Man Details Hard Life in Paleoamerica

Kennewick reconstruction by Brittany Tatchell

The labor-intensive reconstruction of Kennewick Man’s face involved skeletal anatomists, model makers, forensic and figurative sculptors, a photographic researcher, and a painter. (Credit: Sculpted bust by StudioEIS, based on forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning. Photograph by Brittany Tatchell.)

If you think you have it tough, consider Kennewick Man. The early American lived nearly 9,000 years ago and was likely in constant pain. He suffered from one injury after another, and his lifestyle offered little time for rest and recovery. That’s one of the numerous findings revealed in the new book,Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton (Texas A&M University Press). 

Edited by Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley and Richard Jantz, emeritus physical anthropologist at the University of Tennessee, the book contains 32 chapters that contextualize and analyze this iconic skeleton. The ancient bones were first discovered along the Columbia River, nearKennewick, Washington in 1996. The nearly complete skeleton offers researchers a rare case study of life in Paleoamerica. 

“Kennewick Man’s bones tell his story, if you know how to read them,” says Owsley. He and his co-investigators studied every bone and tooth in meticulous detail—there are three chapters dedicated just to teeth. His smile? It was nice, until his teeth were almost worn away, “because of abrasive contaminants in the diet and use of his teeth in task-related activities,” writes John L. Hayes, author of a chapter on the skeleton’s orthodontics. 

Bruwelheide, Owsley

Smithsonian forensic anthropologists Kari Bruwelheide and Doug Owsley conduct a thorough inventory of every tooth and bone from Kennewick Man. (Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution)

The book demonstrates how much we can learn about an individual’s environment and lifestyle from their remains. Bone biographies are inherently personal, but the scientific portrait of this ancient skeleton is surprisingly vivid. It takes us to the edge of what we can know about one Paleoamerican. Here is a sampling of the researchers’ findings: 

  • Size and Stature: 5 feet 7 inches tall and roughly 160 pounds, Kennewick Man was “wide-bodied and massive.”
  • Approximate age at death: 40.
  • Diet & Origin: Although his remains were found far inland, it doesn’t appear that Kennewick Man ate many of the local plants and terrestrial herbivores, like deer and elk. This is what researchers concluded from analyzing the carbon and nitrogen isotope values found in his bone collagen. The evidence suggests that he was not a longtime resident of southeastern Washington, but instead was traveling through. The scientists think Kennewick Man lived most of his life along the northern northwest coast, eating seals and fish.
  • A Tough Life: Kennewick Man was not a stranger to pain. At some point he fractured six ribs; developed a baseball-type injury in his right shoulder—likely from forceful and repeated spear throwing; and was hit in his right hip by a 2-inch-long projectile point. It’s difficult to imagine walking around with a stone blade embedded in your hip, but the growth of new bone around the injury shows that Kennewick Man did just that…for many years.
  • Cause of death: currently unknown.
Kennewick hip bone

The two-inch long stone blade embedded in his hip is perhaps the most dramatic feature of Kennewick Man’s skeleton. Scientists hope to discover the type of rock it’s made from to better understand the location and circumstances surrounding the injury. (Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution)

Scientific tools have advanced since researchers investigated Kennewick Man’s remains nearly a decade ago. The book closes with a vision for future research that includes ancient DNA sequencing; identification of the type of rock embedded in his hip; and measuring the isotope values of a tooth for additional clues about where he lived and what he ate as a child. While no one is planning on writing another 669 pages on this iconic skeleton, it’s easy to imagine it happening. As Owsley puts it, “Kennewick Man has more to say.” 

Editor’s Note: Want More? Writer Douglas Preston explores Kennewick Man’s story in greater detail in the September 2014 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. To discover more about the field of forensic anthropology, visit the website for the past exhibit, Written in Bone.

By Tina Tennessen, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

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