First humans

Scientists debate when the first humans migrated into the Columbia River Basin. According to the writing of John Eliot Allen, author, geologist and long-time professor at Portland State University, there are two well-accepted theories: the early arrivers and the late arrivers. The early arrivers would have come across what is now the Bering Sea Strait on a land bridge known as Beringia from eastern Asia more than 30,000 years ago. The late arrivers theory holds that humans made this same journey about 12,000 years ago.

Evidence of human settlement uncovered near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1930s prompted the theory of the “Clovis People” who are believed to have migrated by land from Asia about 25,000 years ago or earlier. The Clovis People would have been early arrivers. The Bering Strait land bridge, which the Clovis People might have used, appeared and reappeared over time as the glaciers of the last Ice Age periodically grew and retreated. Allen believed that humans were living south of the ice during the late Wisconsin time (20,000-30,000 years ago), the period of maximum ice advance, thus siding with the early-arrivers theory. But he also wrote that the only evidence in the Northwest was a campsite containing charred bones and stone artifacts that was discovered at the site of The Dalles Dam. Also, a single stone artifact believed to be from the era was discovered in a gravel bar at the mouth of the John Day River.

The late-arrivers theory gained favor following the discovery in 2003 of a change in the DNA sequence of the Y chromosome of Siberian men that is estimated to have occurred 15,000 to 18,000 years ago. American Indians have the same DNA marker, dating to approximately the same time. This suggests the Americas first were settled 15,000 to 18,000 years ago. Also, other researchers have documented similarities in the rich profusion of native languages among peoples of the northeastern and northwestern Pacific coasts.

Some of the most intriguing evidence of land migrations and shore-based cultures of that era has been uncovered in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia. More precisely, it came from about a mile offshore in Juan Perez Sound. The evidence was a small, triangular-shaped piece of basalt that had been shaped into a blade. In 1998 researchers for the Geographical Survey of Canada, who had been mapping the sea floor for four years, identified the basalt blade in a bucket of muck winched up from the sea floor. The blade was at least 10,000 years old, and its discovery is consistent with Haida Indian legends that the islands once were at least twice as large as they are today and that people lived along the shore, probably to be close to salmon, seals and other foods from the sea. Then according to the Haida, a “flood tide woman” forced them to move to higher ground. This is consistent with the geologic record. Some 9,000-10,000 years ago, Ice Age glaciers melted, the islands shrank and Beringia disappeared.

The stone blade may mark the site of an ancient village. It might have been left by ancestors of the Haida, or it might have been chiseled by a much earlier people. While the origin of the blade is not clear, it is nonetheless evidence of human habitation of the islands and seashore in the vicinity of present-day British Columbia at a time when the sea level was much lower and travel between Siberia and North America was possible by land.

Humans appear to have taken up residence along the Columbia River at a later time, perhaps about 1,000 years later according to artifacts. This would have been about 8,000 to 10,000 years before the present time. Archaeological evidence suggests salmon were not a primary food source for these people. Salmon are seasonal in the river, and these early inhabitants lacked the technology to catch, prepare and preserve fish — techniques that would be developed by later, and less nomadic, generations. Nevertheless, the first Columbia River residents harvested salmon and left the remains for modern archaeologists to ponder.

Near the historic fishing site known as the Long Narrows of the Columbia River, in the area of present-day The Dalles, Oregon, archaeologists dug into 10,000-year-old deposits that yielded 125,000 salmon vertebrae, large numbers of stone and bone tools and a great variety of bird and mammal bones. There also is evidence that humans lived in the Marmes Rock Shelter along the lower Snake River at about the same time. The Marmes site now is under water behind Lower Monumental Dam.

Archaeological evidence suggests that by about 3,000 years before the present time, humans had discovered and mastered the art of preserving fish by drying or smoking it. This increased the economic and subsistence value of salmon as a food by allowing the fish to be captured and preserved during periods of abundance and consumed later during times when other foods were scarce, as in winter and early spring. A stable food supply such as dried and packed salmon allowed humans to be less nomadic and establish permanent settlements, as well as provide a trade item to barter with other humans.

Kennewick Man

The ancestry of these early inhabitants remains something of a mystery, although archaeologists believe many migrated from Asia via the Beringia land mass that linked Siberia to Alaska and North America. The accidental discovery of human remains in the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in July 1996, remains that proved to be 9,300 years old, lends credence to this assumption.

Two things about the nearly complete skeleton were of particular interest to scientists who initially studied the remains. First, there was a stone projectile embedded in the pelvis. Second, the first archaeologist to study the remains, James Chatters of Bothel, Washington, described the skull as having “Caucasoid” features, not Asian features associated with native Americans. A reconstruction of the skull based on Chatters’ conclusions looked a lot like the bald Captain Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Adventure,” and this only further angered Northwest Indian tribes who claimed common ancestry with the remains based on where they were found. Next, others adopted the Caucasoid theory, suggesting that Kennewick Man, as the remains were named, might have belonged to a people who migrated from the east across northern Atlantic ice, as some scientists had suggested, as well as from the west across the Pacific.

Later results cast doubt on an Atlantic crossing. In 2013, an international team of scientists led by the Centre for GeoGentics in Denmark completed the genome sequence of a 24,000-year-old skeleton from Siberia. As reported in the Nov. 20, 2013, online version of the journal Nature (read a synopsis of the article here), the most significant finding is that the Siberian individual had close affinity to modern Native Americans, but not to East Asians. The study concludes that two distinct Old World populations led to the formation of what is called the “First American” gene pool: one related to modern-day East Asians, and the other a Siberian Upper Paleolithic population related to modern-day western Eurasians. According to the Nature article:

"The presence of a population related to western Eurasians further into northeast Eurasia provides a more likely explanation for the presence of non-East Asian cranial characteristics in the First Americans, rather than the … hypothesis that proposes an Atlantic route from Iberia. Genetic continuity in south-central Siberia before and after the Last Glacial Maximum provides evidence for the presence of humans in the region throughout this cold phase, which is of consequence to population movements into Beringia and ultimately the Americas around 15,000 years ago.”

So Kennewick Man may have been more closely related to the western Eurasian population than to the east Asian population, suggesting that he or his ancestors came from west to east across Siberia and the Beringia land bridge to reach the North American continent.

As for the stone projectile in his pelvis, research indicates it probably was manufactured in the region that is now central Washington -- a “Cascade Point” -- but the type of stone is common to other places around the Pacific Rim, as well. So that question remains a matter of speculation. Perhaps Kennewick Man was from the region where his skeleton was found, as some researchers suggested, or perhaps he was from the coast and traveled to the Northwest across the Beringia land bridge, as others suggested, or perhaps he traveled to western North America by boat across the Pacific, as still others suggested.

Over time, as research techniques became more sophisticated, thinking steadily began to change, leaning away from the initial Caucasoid theory of Kennewick Man’s ancestry.

It has been a long journey.

Because the remains were found in the river within the pool created by McNary Dam, underwater and just off shore — a boy discovered the skull by stepping on it -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam and reservoir, took possession of the remains. A legal battle ensued as Indian tribes attempted to claim the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in order to prevent further testing -- considered a desecration -- and bury them according to tribal customs.

Ultimately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February 2004 that the remains were not unequivocally Native American. It would be impossible to establish a link between modern native Americans and remains that are so ancient, the court concluded. Thus, the remains were not awarded to the tribal litigants, and scientific study could continue. The following year, in July, a team of scientists organized by the Smithsonian Institution began to study the bones, which are stored in the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle and remain legally the property of the Corps of Engineers.

The new research did not end the dispute. The question of Kennewick Man’s lineage became even more complicated, and controversial. The leader of the Smithsonian team, physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, announced in 2012 that he was convinced, like Chatters was in 1996, that Kennewick Man is not related to modern native Americans. The shape of the skull, his team concluded, is unlike the skulls of modern native Americans but more like early inhabitants of what is now Japan. Thus, this research suggested, Kennewick Man, while not necessarily Cacuasoid, also is not native American. As well, chemical analysis of the bones suggested Kennewick Man frequently dined on marine mammals, suggesting a more coastal than inland residency. None of this precludes a relation to modern native Americans, but it makes it more likely Kennewick Man was a visitor and not a man with a legacy in the Northwest, Owsley claimed. His team published its results in a massive (669-page) book in 2014.

Meanwhile, lightning struck. Twice.

First, Chatters, who had been initially in the Caucasoid camp with Owsley, changed his mind about Kennewick Man after studying the 13,0000-year-old skeleton of a girl discovered in Mexico. Like Kennewick Man, she also had an unusually shaped skull. But DNA analysis, which has improved in sophistication since the mid-1990s, proved she shared common ancestry with today’s native Americans.

Second, while it was not possible to extract DNA from Kennewick Man’s bones in 1996, it is today -- and has been, by Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev and his team at the Centre for GeoGentics at the University of Copenhagen, the same lab that completed the genome sequence of the 24,000-year-old Siberian skeleton. His lab is considered a world leader in the analysis of ancient DNA. In 2014 the lab reported that an infant buried 12,600 years ago in what is now Montana was an ancestor of modern native Americans and a descendant of people who inhabited Beringia.

Willerslev and a colleague, Thomas Stafford, Jr., a research professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark who also runs a research laboratory in Colorado, analyzed bone fragments from Kennewick Man using the state-of-the art technology in Willerslev’s laboratory. Stafford was not new to Kennewick Man research. He was part of Owsley’s team that conducted the 2005-2012 research. At around that time, he received permission from the Corps of Engineers to conduct separate, detailed chemical analysis of a small group of bone fragments. He looked for chemical isotopes, radioactive carbon, and certain proteins and amino acids. If DNA could be extracted, it would be in the proteins and amino acids.

Later, he began working with Willerslev to search for DNA in those same fragments. It was this work that led to the initial conclusion that there was a link between Kennewick Man and modern native Americans. In a 2013 email to the Corps asking for one more fragment for additional testing (the Corps said yes), Stafford wrote that he and Willerslev now “…feel that Kennewick Man has normal, standard Native-American genetics,” adding, “at present there is no indication he has a different origin than North American Native American. Solutrean and other ‘interesting’ origins for early Americans have been rebuked.” The Solutrean Hypothesis, first proposed in 1998, holds that humans migrated from Ice Age Europe to North America and brought with them methods of making stone tools adopted by later people groups, including the Clovis People.

The Seattle Times obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request and published a story about the findings in January 2015 (the email is linked from the story). Stafford cautioned the Times reporter that the initial results could change a bit with more detailed analysis. But other experts told the Times that the initial conclusions likely would not be overturned by additional analysis.

The Willerslev group’s findings and conclusions were published online June 18, 2015 by the journal Nature. In their summary, the scientists wrote that Kennewick Man is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide. Through comparison to DNA samples provided by two members of the Colville Confederated Tribes, whose reservation borders the river about 250 miles upstream of the place where Kennewick Man’s bones were found, the researchers concluded that several native American groups descend from a population closely related to that of Kennewick Man, and that the strongest link among the available samples for comparison was to the modern Colville tribal members. The scientists debunk the original cranial analyses, saying it’s not possible on that basis alone to affiliate Kennewick Man with any specific population today. And so in the language of science, they concluded that Kennewick Man “shows continuity” with modern native Americans over the last 8,000 years and the Colville tribal members “show close affinities” to Kennewick Man or his population.

The long story of the ancient skeleton took yet another turn in April 2016 when a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate -- for the second time; the first was in 2015 -- as part of a water bill to require the federal government to give the bones of Kennewick Man back to the Indian tribes. Coincidentally, the Corps of Engineers issued a press release the next day (April 27) announcing its "initial determination" that based on its review of the new (2015) DNA information, "... there is substantial evidence to determine that Kennewick Man is related to modern Native Americans from the United States." According to the news release, this means "...the remains are now subject to the processes and procedures outlined in NAGPRA." The Corps contracted for an independent validation of the Willerslev group's 2015 findings and received the report in April 2016 -- upholding the Willerslev group's conclusions -- and subsequently issued its determination. The Corps posted the news release, the independent analysis, which was contracted by the St. Louis District of the Corps, and other information on its Kennewick Man webpage, here.

According to an April 27, 2016 story in the Seattle Times, now that the Corps has decided, five tribes will work together to bury the remains. While Willerslev's group found a strong link between Kennewick Man's DNA and that of Colville tribal members, all Columbia Plateau tribes claim a shared ancestry with the ancient skeleton. A spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers said repatriation of the remains will not occur before February 2017.