Bones Can Tell Quite a Story

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

His teeth had no cavities, but they were heavily worn. He was about my height — some 5 feet, 7 inches tall. He wasn’t petite, likely weighing around 160 pounds. Well before his death, he broke six of his ribs. Five of them never healed, but he kept going nevertheless.

A recent article in “The Smithsonian Magazine” details all this and more about Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in south-central Washington State in 1996. The occasion for the article is the publication of a 680-page book on Kennewick Man being released this fall by Texas A&M University Press.

Carbon-14 dating indicates Kennewick Man lived about 9000 years ago. His ancient bones have told researchers an interesting tale about the route the first people to reach North America may have taken in their journey to reach our part of the world.

But first, some specifics about the man himself. People who study bones closely can tell which muscles were well developed when a person was alive because of the marks that muscle attachments leave behind. According to the piece in “The Smithsonian,” Kennewick Man’s right shoulder was very well developed. That indicates he likely made a living throwing a spear with his right arm. His right shoulder even has a fracture in its socket, perhaps because he once threw something a little too hard, like baseball pitchers do today.

It may have been because he threw right-handed that the five ribs on his right side never properly healed after they were broken. As the article says, “This man was one tough dude.”

A stone spear-point was embedded in Kennewick Man’s hip. It had a downward arc, perhaps meaning it was thrown from a distance. Looking at bone growth around the point, scientists believe he encountered that spear when he was 15-20 years old (Kennewick Man is believed to have been around 40 when he died.) The injury to his hip from the 2-inch long point was significant. Researchers think he must have been helped by other people to survive and regain his health. So although he was a tough dude, he wasn’t a lone wolf.

Kennewick Man’s skull reveals still more injuries. He had two small skull fractures, one on his forehead. Possibly he was in a serious fight. Another thing that might explain the injuries could be a bola. That weapon involves whirling a couple of rocks connected by a rope above the head. A miscalculation with a bola could have injured Kennewick man’s skull.

The bonus question in anthropology is where Kennewick Man came from. The features of the famous specimen can be seen as an indicator that North America was originally peopled by coastal Asians who worked their way around what’s now Japan and Kamchatka to Alaska and then points south. That’s a hypothesis that will no doubt be tested over time as other ancient bones are discovered and analyzed.

Stay tuned.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.