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Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans Paperback – August 13, 2002

4.5 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In this intriguing work of scholarly detection, forensic anthropologist James Chatters relates the story of a fossil discovery that has challenged received wisdom about the peopling of the Americas--and that has touched off a storm of controversy.

On July 28, 1996, two students happened on a skull that peeked from the mud of a Washington riverbank. When police officers arrived at the site, they called in Chatters, a deputy coroner and scientist. At first glance, Chatters guessed that the skull was that of a white pioneer, perhaps a hundred or so years old, but on examining other skeletal remains, he began to suspect that the human eventually dubbed "Kennewick Man" was much older indeed. Various scientific tests proved him right: the skeleton was around 9,500 years old. But Kennewick Man, he announced, was also "Caucasoid" in appearance, a revelation that triggered charges of racism and tomb-robbing by local Native Americans, who claimed the remains as part of their cultural heritage. The announcement also drew in white supremacists, who seized on Chatters's discovery to argue that their forebears were the first to arrive in North America.

Both the term "Caucasoid" and its racially charged interpretations were off the mark, Chatters writes, for Kennewick Man should be seen as an ancestor to us all. Some of his features, and those of other ancient remains found elsewhere in the Americas, suggest a kinship with peoples as various as Polynesians, Ainu, medieval Icelanders, and Australian aborigines. More important than bloodline is the revision that Kennewick Man and his cousins force in our account of the arrival of humans in the Americas, which, Chatters argues, happened in waves over long periods of time and involved people of widely varied features and genetic traits.

Writing evenly of a controversy that continues to rage, Chatters provides a behind-the-scenes view of physical anthropology, as well as a fascinating revision of the human past. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Bones always have a story to tell, says Chatters in this firsthand account of the discovery, in Washington state, of Kennewick Man, a 9,500-year-old skeleton that some scientists believe gives evidence of European migrations to the Americas long before the arrival of Native Americans. Chatters, an archeologist and forensic consultant called in when the skeleton was found, tells a tale of "cowboys" and Indians, revolving around a stalled investigation. Local tribes, backed by the federal government, claim Kennewick Man as an ancestor and want to rebury him. Even as this book hits the shelves, an appeal by anthropologists is pending in the courts, and Chatters's intent seems to be to influence popular opinion. The first half of this book, a reconstruction of the weeks leading up to the government's appropriation of the bones, reads like a bad thriller; the author relies on a handful of dialogue modifiers to convey character, making it easy to tell the good from the bad from the ugly. Chatters's "cowboys" in white hats are the anthropologists, and his Indians are as mean and thick-headed as they come. They "growl" and speak "angrily," and are always getting in the author's face. He, meanwhile, invariably has the last word: "I glared at him and snapped, `The First Amendment always applies.'" The second half of the book is a surprisingly engaging treatment of the science used to reconstruct the past from ancient remains, and of some theories on prehistoric migrations from Europe and Asia that might explain Kennewick Man, and that attempt to debunk Native Americans' claim to him. (June 7)Forecast: Being released in the midst of a court case the hearing is scheduled for June 19 this is bound to garner media attention and controversy as each side make its case in the battle for these bones. The author will tour in the Northwestern U.S., where interest is particularly high.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 13, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684859378
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684859378
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #723,405 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I read Dr. Chatters' book in one sitting, and highly recommend it to ALL readers interested in the earliest peoples of the Americas. As the first scientist (& one of the few) to observe the Kennewick skeleton, and having been directly involved in the controversy which has swirled around the remains, this is clearly a very personal account for Chatters. It really comes across that he'd probably NOT have chosen to be embroiled in this sort of issue; but he is uncompromising in his conclusion: the bones are NOT those of an individual we call "American Indian".
The history of the find and ensuing battles between scientists, native groups, and the government is riveting (and unpromising to the future of archaeology in this country). Chatters also goes the extra mile and compares his find to all the other known ancient American skeletal remains, which gives this book a general picture of the state of "early Americans" studies which ensures that I will use this book as a text for my upcoming course on the subject.
A couple of minor things keeps this book from being "perfect", in my opinion. First, since he trusts us to follow the "Caucasoid-but-not-Caucasian" osteological discussion, it could have been enhanced by some simple diagram of the 3 major modern skull "ethnic" groups, showing major points where early Americans do and DO NOT resemble these types. Second, although there were ample references in the endnotes, a few assertions were tossed off and never referenced (The one that bothered me most: mention of a biface-and-blade stone tool technology in Japan that is a putative ancestor to Clovis technology in the Americas.
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Format: Hardcover
Liam is partially right---the first 100 or so pages ARE about the legal and cultural tug-of-war this discovery has generated. The remainder of the book (the majority) is about the research process and what THAT generated. Dr. Chatters and his colleagues used some cutting-edge technology (fascinating in its own right)to glean information from the bones of Kennewick Man. They found many tantalizing clues about how and when the Americas were populated. And descriptions of their work as medical detectives is utterly compelling! I feel like I really know something about this man, his life, and his people. The information gathered by Dr. Chatters and his team also helped with the identification of other, "mystery" bones. For example, "Stick Man" was a partial skull which had been sitting around a museum for untold years, awaiting analysis. Chatters noticed some similarities between it and Kennewick Man. Research determined that it was about the same age as Kennewick Man. The soil which had accreted inside inside the "Stick Man" skull was similar to the soil in which Kennewick Man was found, and had pollens from plants native to the area in which Kennewick Man lived. The physiological similarities between the two skulls corroborated Chatters' theory that ancient Americans may not have looked like modern Native Americans, and this "unidentified" skull fragment finally had a label. Chatters' explanations of technical processes, and of theories such as genetic drift, are clear and concise. Most of the time, his writing style is unaffected and direct. This book is a far cry from the disorganized,hastily-written "Riddle of the Bones," by Roger Downey. Downey's book, which came out about a year ago, is about the same subject. It was very badly-written, but the information was so interesting that I was willing to wade through Downey's thicket of words and mispunctuation to get to it. Chatters' book was a DEFINITE relief.
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Format: Hardcover
Ancient Encounters is a fascinating read! The author's conversational style makes you forget the book is nonfiction. Although packed with scientific information, it reads like a novel. Chatters' ability to explain complicated subjects (like DNA testing) in a clear, concise, and engaging way makes this book accessible to non-scientists. Anybody interested in prehistory will have a hard time putting it down.
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Format: Hardcover
The story of the fight over Kennewick Man begins in 1996, with the discovery of a mystery skeleton in the mud of the Columbia River, near Kennewick, Washington, and, by its end, tells us more about our own strange modern world than it does about the K-man's long lost one.

Chatters recounts the struggle over K-man's remains in fascinating detail. His is a nonfiction work that also provides some of the satisfactions of a mystery and a thriller (so might want to jump over parts of this), as well as an absurdist tragicomedy. The last, thanks mostly to a US Army Corps of Engineers that exhibits all the serious scientific integrity and commitment to due process one might expect if a mad political scientist had managed to join Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks to the Spanish Inquisition.

Chatters' first reaction is that the skeleton belongs to some early colonial-era white pioneer; however, upon closer inspection, the remains prove to be much older. The initial examination is barely complete when the federal government, having jurisdiction over the excavation site, begins to seize K-man's remains to turn them over to local Indians.

The government declares that it is carrying out the provisions of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a law, according to Chatters, which is "being used by the Indian tribes to reclaim all ancient human skeletons, regardless of their age and often with little or no opportunity allowed for scientific investigation."

As the government begins to close in on K-man, Chatters hurriedly consults another anthropologist, a highly respected forensic competitor, in order to obtain an unbiased second opinion: `Male Caucasian,' she said. `You sure?' I asked. `Easy call,' was the firm response.
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