“Osteobiography” : the “biography of the bones”
August 26, 2014 11:27 PM   Subscribe

"There’s a wonderful term used by anthropologists: “osteobiography,” the “biography of the bones.” Kennewick Man’s osteobiography tells a tale of an eventful life, which a newer radiocarbon analysis puts at having taken place 8,900 to 9,000 years ago. He was a stocky, muscular man about 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing about 160 pounds. He was right-handed. His age at death was around 40." After years of legal wrangling and scientific arguments, Smithsonian Magazine takes on the history of the Kennewick Man and the long-awaited publication of studies co-edited by physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley (of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History's Anthropology department.)

Book details here. Background on NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act here. 1997 article from Archaeology on the legal battle is here, along with additional publication links. 2004 report from the NPS with background, documentation, and scientific investigation information are here. The Burke Museum's information is here, with a list of further publications here.

Previous thread on the legal case (now a decade old.)
posted by jetlagaddict (14 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Kennewick Man, Kennewick Man, does whatever a Kennewick can.

But seriously, very fascinating. I know what I'm buying myself for my birthday book this year!!
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 2:14 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

How frustrating that the Army Corps of Engineers won't allow those crucial tests on the teeth, spearhead, etc. I'm kind of angry after reading that.
posted by Brodiggitty at 2:56 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

What's going on with the corps? Is it that the corps doesn't want to release the remains for further study because they are committed to giving the remains to representatives of native groups (maybe as a bargaining chip in other negotiations)? Or is the corps just delaying things because they can (out of spite)?
posted by pracowity at 3:42 AM on August 27, 2014

pracowity: yep, that's exactly it --- the Army Corps of Engineers promised the bones to a coalition of Columbia River Basin tribes without anything more that a demand from that coalition; no study or investigation, just turn over the bones immediately. The coalition has insisted --- without any proof whatsoever --- that Kennewick Man is a "direct tribal ancestor", and they have repeatedly stated they want to rebury the bones where they'll never be found. And the Corps wants concessions from the tribes, and sees this as the way to get them.

9000 years is an awful long time, and as Doug Owsley and the other anthropologists say Kennewick Man isn't Native American: he's most closely related to the Ainu of northern Japan. But this scientific evidence apparently means nothing to the Corps; they've actually broken the law they're holding the bones under: NAGPRA, that law about repatriating Native remains, actually requires scientific study to determine present-day tribal affiliation. Heck, the Corps even ignored direct orders from the Dept. of the Interior, Dept. of Justice and Congress in all this.
posted by easily confused at 5:32 AM on August 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

pracowity: "What's going on with the corps?"

The COE is actually siding with native interests, counter to the normal policy for the US government and most US people in general. I note that the article doesn't even interview any native people for their perspectives on Kennewick, but rather it's just Owsley with an open and uncritical mic.

The archaeology of this piece, throwing around Jomon, Ainu, and Polynesians, is just fantastically idiotic. Smithsonian Magazine hasn't changed much since I last read it.
posted by barnacles at 6:27 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

What's not idiotic is the description of the bureaucratic wrangling on behalf of the Corps (et alia), which seems to be very notably motivated by something other than tribal interests.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:06 AM on August 27, 2014

I note that the article doesn't even interview any native people for their perspectives on Kennewick, but rather it's just Owsley with an open and uncritical mic.


Everyone's got an agenda here, and the Corps' and the tribes aren't less altruistic than Owsley's. The Corps actually does want to do right by the tribes, and the tribes have hundreds of years of military and cultural oppression they're pushing back against.

That the Corps bungled the initial cultural affiliation determination has more to do with local politics, unfamiliarity with the processes of a new law, and some massive gaps in the coverage of NAGPRA than it does with some venal quid pro quo. When the law was drafted nobody thought about how it would apply to a set of remains that was (a) not on tribal land; and (b) too old to be reasonably affiliated with any current recognized tribe.

It didn't help that when the remains were originally found, Jim Chatters & the local coroner went to the press with their "could be European!" findings, which brought all the crazies out of the woodwork. Everyone who wanted to believe that Native Americans couldn't have been the first inhabitants of the Americas jumped on it, and it blew up into a huge thing. Naturally the Corps just wanted to settle it fast.

As a result, a bunch of wannabe Vikings showed up and tried to claim the remains, as well. I think they even filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit.

The Corps is a fairly quiet bureaucracy, and this is not the sort of thing they were equipped to deal with.
posted by suelac at 8:28 AM on August 27, 2014

It is amazing what they've learned about his life. It is totally compelling to want to know ancient people on a human level - beyond the fascination of figuring out the larger history of when people came to certain areas and so on, I mean knowing what an individual life was like, his biography but also his subjective understanding of the world.

The idea that remains should be re-buried respectfully, and that where a cultural group is still around they should get to veto the removal of remains, is certainly an advance over the gross history of the last few hundred years. But at the same time, I wish there were a way to find a middle ground here. I feel like the desire to know about ancient lives can come not from a dehumanizing perspective of seeing the person's remains as "specimens," but from a place of respect and wanting to know those people as fellow humans in a way that broadens our view of how we're all connected.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:27 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

barnacles - why is it implausible that this man was from a Jomon-related group? (Real question, I want to know and I don't have any background in this.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:35 AM on August 27, 2014

This is interesting. I'm just at the age where all the years of repetitive motions, favored exercise and lifestyle habits are showing up in irreparable bone signatures. So what would they say about my body in 10,000 years?

Right ring finger overlaps middle finger indicating propensity to over-grip pencils, a historical writing implement used before thought-to-type technology was invented. Ankles veer inwards from either repeated sports injuries or high-heels, a torturous shoe worn to increase sexual attraction and reduce female mobility. Curvature of the spine and shoulders indicating desk-work as a primary means of hunting-and-gathering of 'money,' an inorganic and inherently worthless trading technology used in ancient times to procure foodstuffs and lodging.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:39 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

You forgot, St. Peepsburg, thickened thumb bones from thumb texting and hyper extension stress on the wrist and elbows for selfies.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 12:48 PM on August 27, 2014

St. Peepsburg: also something about the butt calluses from sitting at that desk all day....
posted by easily confused at 8:58 AM on August 28, 2014

This is a surprising development.
posted by homunculus at 11:06 PM on September 10, 2014

Yeah, Kennewick Man, Kennewick Man, does whatever a Kennewick can!!!

I know there's a "Florida Man" twitter account, perhaps there needs to be a "Kennewick Man" one, too.

posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 8:47 AM on September 11, 2014

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