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Putting a New Face on Prehistory

By Boyce Rensberger

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 15, 1997; Page A01

Skeletons unearthed in several western states and as far east as Minnesota are challenging the traditional view that the earliest Americans all resembled today's Asians. The skeletons' skulls bear features similar to those of Europeans, suggesting that Caucasoid people were among the earliest humans to migrate into the New World more than 9,000 years ago.

Anthropologists have known of such bones for years, but did not fully appreciate their significance until reappraising them over the last few months. The new analyses were prompted by the discovery last summer of the newest addition to the body of evidence -- the unusually complete skeleton of an "apparently Caucasoid" man who died about 9,300 years ago near what is now Kennewick, Wash. "It's an exciting time, and I think we're going to see some real changes in the story about the peopling of North America," said Dennis Stanford, an authority on early human history on this continent at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. "I think we're going to see the whole complexion of North American prehistory change real fast."

D. Gentry Steele, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University, speculates that people of both races migrated into North America in separate waves, possibly thousands of years apart. Where they met, he suspects, they "made love, not war," and thus both populations may be ancestral to some or all of today's Native Americans. Until now, most anthropologists thought that the earliest humans to inhabit the Americas all resembled today's Asiatic peoples, popularly called Mongoloids. Prehistoric Americans are thought to have migrated from Siberia into Alaska and then spread southward, probably during an ice age when sea levels were hundreds of feet lower than now, exposing a "land bridge."

Now, however, many anthropologists believe that early colonization of the Americas was a more complex process, involving not only Mongoloids but Caucasoids as well, probably in separate migrations. Some Native American peoples today resemble the people of Asia and some are more European. Much of this mixture is the product of intermarriage in recent centuries, but some may date back thousands of years.

The reappraisal of prehistoric Americans also is providing an explanation for the Ainu people of Japan. A distinctly European-looking population with light skin, wavy hair and heavy beards, the Ainu were living on islands off Asia thousands of years ago, when Mongoloid people from the mainland crossed the water to found the modern Japanese nation.

Today's Ainu -- historically a despised minority group, many of whom now live on reservations -- have long puzzled anthropologists because they lived so far from any other known region of Caucasoid habitation and because people of more typical Asiatic physical form filled a large intervening territory.

Anthropologists now suspect -- but cannot prove -- that the presence of European-type people in Japan and in North America in prehistoric times indicates that the race spread far from its presumed homeland in western Asia much earlier than had been thought.

These emerging interpretations are based on a scientific technique called craniofacial morphometric analysis. It involves detailed study of the shape of the skull and face, using a sophisticated method called multivariate analysis. In some cases, more than 60 different dimensions of a skull are measured and compared with comparable dimensions considered typical of specific racial groups. Anthropologists have established a range of measurements considered characteristic of the majority of members in each major group. Most anthropologists agree that races, as most people use the term, are socially defined groupings with no scientific definition. No physical traits are exclusively the property of one race or another. Still, anthropologists agree that certain combinations of measurements, chiefly of the face and skull, can be used to determine whether individuals belong to one population or another. This is true primarily for groups that have been separated geographically for thousands of years.

Caucasoid people, for example, tend to have longer, more angular faces and beakier noses, while Mongoloid people typically have rounder skulls and smaller noses. Certain shapes of teeth also can figure in the analysis. So-called shovel-shaped incisors, for example, are common among modern Asiatic peoples and relatively rare among others.

Using a combination of measurements, it is often possible to identify the race of an individual when nothing is left but a skull, said Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Such analyses are routine in police work.

Owsley, a nationally recognized authority in this field, has examined some of the evidence for early Caucasoid presence in the Americas and believes it is fairly convincing. "There have been seven well-preserved skeletons that are securely dated to 8,000 years or older," Owsley said. Two have been reburied at the insistence of American Indian groups who claimed the remains were of their ancestors. "When you look at the craniofacial morphology of the five that are still accessible, they are certainly very different from today's Native Americans," Owsley said. "They are a whole lot different from contemporary Native Americans." Perhaps the most intensively examined of the skeletons is that of a man who died about 9,400 years ago and was laid to rest in Spirit Cave, Nev. His remains were discovered in 1940 but their age was not determined until last year. The man's head and shoulder were mummified, preserving much of the skin in that area. He was wearing moccasins and was wrapped in woven fabric.

Owsley recently examined the remains in great detail and, in his report to the Nevada State Museum, where the skeleton is housed, said, "It does have a 'European' or 'archaic Caucasoid' look because morphometrically it is most similar to the Ainu from Japan and a medieval period Norse population."

Still, Owsley cautioned, this does not mean the man's ancestors were from Europe. "I'm reluctant to say he's a white guy, but he's certainly very different from modern Asians and Native Americans," Owsley said. One possibility, he speculated, is that an ancient proto-caucasoid population lived in northern Asia and offshoots from it moved east to Japan and across the land bridge to the Americas. "It is clear that European-like people were previously more widespread in Asia than is presently the case," said Richard L. Jantz, an anthropologist specializing in prehistoric Americans at the University of Tennessee. "It is possible that the distribution extended into Northeast Asia and that some of them were positioned to enter America."

"To me it seems pretty clear that Northeast Asia, up to about 9,000 years ago, was inhabited by people who were unlike the people who live there today, and that the early people were more 'Caucasoid' in appearence. At the present time, I don't think the evidence is sufficient to argue that this similarity results from descent from a common ancestor, but it is certainly possible," Jantz said. Some anthropologists reject the Caucasoid label for the prehistoric skeletons. Donald K. Grayson of the University of Washington, for example, says that using the word raises "a red flag, suggesting that whites were here earlier and Indians were here later." That, he contends, implies that the ancient peoples who reached the New World were like today's Europeans or American whites.

In fact, as some other anthropologists note, the "apparently Caucasoid" skeletons may represent a physical type that was not ancestral to today's Europeans but may have given rise to the Ainu and other groups, such as the Polynesians, who do not resemble modern Asians but do have a somewhat Caucasoid cast.

In other words, the scientists say it is possible that it is only a coincidence that the ancient skeletons have features that resemble those of Europeans. The long heads and angular faces may have arisen independently in a strictly Asian population.

Further evidence to answer such questions lies in the skeletal remains that have been found and in others presumably yet to emerge, both in North America and in Asia.

At least two of the ancient skeletons from this country have been reburied, both at the insistence of various American Indian ethnic groups who claimed that because the remains were found in a region their people inhabited in recent centuries, the bones must be of their ancestors.

Because these skeletons are so important scientifically, Jantz, Owsley, Stanford and many other anthropologists are resisting pressure to rebury them. Indian tribes, like nearly all ethnic groups worldwide, have migrated so much in recent centuries that it is seldom possible to link any living person with a specific geographic region for more than a few centuries, they argue. The most recent controversy involves the Kennewick, Wash., bones. "This individual is a teacher for all ages," Owsley said. "There's just so much we could learn from a detailed study of him."

One of the most complete ancient skeletons found in this country, the bones were immediately recognized as Caucasoid, leading those who first examined it to think they were the remains of a European settler. A new method of radiocarbon dating that consumes only tiny amounts of the sample subsequently revealed the man lived 8,400 years ago.

To local Indian groups, particularly the Umatillas who live in that part of Washington, the age simply confirmed their belief that the skeleton was one of their ancestors. "We know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time," a Umatilla leader wrote in a position paper.

The Indian request for reburial was made to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on whose land the remains were found. The corps was about to comply when Owsley, Stanford and other anthropologists filed suit last October in federal District Court in Portland, Ore. They said the corps was violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The scientists argued that the Umatillas had not properly established that the skeleton was related to them and that, in any event, the law allows scientific study before reburial.

At the hearing, the corps said it had made no decision to rebury the skeleton and would not decide for some months. The judge ordered the corps to give two-week notice to the scientists before reburial. The skeleton remains in a vault pending further action.


Where ancient, non-Mongoloid skeletons have been found in North America.

Kennewick, Wash.

9,300 years old

Browns Valley, Minn

9,300 years old

Spirit Cave, Nev.

At least 9,200 years old

Gordon Creek, Colo.

9,700 years old

Wilson-Leonard, Tex.

9,500-10,000 years old

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