The Kennewick Science Show

If you don't know what "Kennewick Man" is, be happy and move on.

If you do, you may have been hearing about it in the news over the past few weeks, for example in this AP story by reporter Melanthia Mitchell. This story begins:

Cloistered around padded tables, scientists from around the country have been peering through microscopes and measuring bone fragments trying to unearth the history of an ancient skeleton found along the Columbia River.
Researchers on Sunday offered details of their first comprehensive study of the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, one of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in North America.
The team of anthropologists, geochemists and data analysts have been busy assembling the skeleton's more than 300 bones and bone fragments at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, where the remains have been since 1998.

And it ends:

Later, researchers will be analyzing samples taken from fragments of the leg during government studies in 1999 and 2000.

Wait a minute! There were government studies? You mean (gasp!) scientists have actually already studied the bones?

Yes, it's true. The plaintiffs in the case have assembled at last to study the remains, and are putting on a public show of it. But almost all of what they are going to do has already been done. And most of the new analyses they intend could be accomplished with data that are already published.

The National Park Service maintains a website related to the Kennewick case. Included on the site are detailed reports of the analyses that were carried out on the specimen during the preparation for the court proceedings. The NPS puts it better than anything I've seen elsewhere:

Some commentators and reporters have described the legal controversy swirling around the Kennewick remains in rather super-heated rhetoric pitting the interests of "science" against those of traditional Native Americans. This characterization ignores the detailed, intensive, and wide-ranging scientific investigation of the Kennewick remains undertaken to determine the facts relevant to the questions in the case and report them.
Many news reports have inaccurately suggested that scientific study of the Kennewick remains has not occurred, or is being hidden from the American public. In fact, this is quite untrue. A number of studies have been conducted and reported on. These studies are easily accessible for use by other scientists and interested members of the public. Table 1 lists the studies and scientists who have carried them out.

Indeed, the reports included there tell almost everything you would want to know about the specimen, including cranial measurements, osteological assessment, DNA extraction attempts (all negative), and even the spearpoint embedded in the pelvis. It's all there.

There could be more pictures, although there are some. But it's hard to complain -- I wish this kind of information were available about every hominid fossil I'd like to study. Little is to be gained from measuring and remeasuring. There's even a CT scan! The government report discusses it, and the current press stories come with a picture of the stereolithograph.

So what exactly is this bunch of plaintiffs going to study? At the Friends of America's Past website, they have posted their study plan. After inventory and reconstruction (both already done by the government), they plan this:

The skeleton will be examined and measured to crosscheck data reported by other investigators and to obtain data not previously collected. Some of the issues to be addressed through these investigations are: taphonomy of the skeleton; interpretation of the calcium carbonate concretions on the bones; identification of the embedded projectile point; determination of the projectile point's entry point; evaluation of Kennewick Man's injuries and lifestyle activities, his age at the time of death and his physical stature; assessment of his biological relationships to various modern and prehistoric populations.

Sounds like more cross-checking than new data. Nothing against cross-checking, but is it newsworthy?

Mystery or science?

You may be reading this thinking, "what exactly are you complaining about, Hawks?" After all, didn't the scientists win the battle? Isn't that a good thing?

Yes it is. It's silly to have a law that gives 9000-year-old skeletons to modern-day tribes. Based on the documents I've seen, I have no idea whether the law should have been applied in the way it was. Believe me, it's more complicated than it looks, and the provision applying to truly ancient remains needs to be changed so that it is at least clear what it means.

What I'm complaining about is the idea that there is some deep secret hiding in these bones that only these select scientists can unlock. Why exactly does a press account of their work start with them "cloistered around padded tables?" Any reasonable reader comes away from these stories thinking that nobody else has ever examined these bones.

This impression is not an accident. The scientists involved are not responsible for all journalistic accounts of their research. But their public statements have planted the myth that only they are capable of finding out the mysteries of the specimen. Here's a quote from one of their attorney's statements:

Plaintiffs have much to contribute to any scientific study of this enormously important discovery from America's past. They and the members of their study team have spent their professional careers investigating questions relating to human evolution and the peopling of the Americas. Together, they have written or co-authored over 750 scientific articles and a dozen books. Many of them are, or have been, editors of some of the most authoritative scientific publications in their fields. Without the participation of these scholars, any attempt to determine who Kennewick Man was and how he relates to modern peoples will be incomplete.

Really. "Without the participation of these scholars, any attempt to determine who Kennewick Man was and how he relates to modern peoples will be incomplete."

The specialists looking at the specimen now are certainly some of the most prominent people in the field, and I have no doubt that they will uncover something new in their examination. Read it again: there will be something new out of all this. We're still finding new stuff from Ötzi the Iceman, for goodness' sake. It is always good to return to old finds and reexamine them. There may even be a "gotcha" waiting, since the reports of the work already carried out generally make clear that more work can and should be done.

But the NPS reports -- which are now six years old -- use the same references as the study plan of the scientists now starting work. They use the same definitions, criteria, and comparative samples that were developed by some of those scientists. Read them both and compare.

The attitude that there is going to be very much more that these studies missed is, frankly, antiscientific. It is basically a claim that the first people who studied the remains either may have got it wrong or may not have followed published procedures correctly. That is not the way science is supposed to work. That's the way that Robin Cook novels work. And it's irritating for me to read stuff that makes our science look like some cheap paperback.

So yes, I'm exercised about it. It's a circus.

At least there is some hope that it won't take too long. Here's another piece from the attorneys:

It is anticipated that all physical examinations of the skeleton can be completed in approximately two weeks. A detailed report will be issued following evaluation of the examination and test results. Copies of the report will be made available to the government, other scientists and interested members of the public.

That's it. Two weeks to deliver the answers. Which is about a week longer than I have long thought this whole mess should have taken to begin with.

But most of what you want to know, you can find out right now for free. Please check it out, so you'll know how many of the "new" results are six years old.