PORTLAND - Some major pieces of bone have disappeared from the 9,300-year-old Kennewick Man skeleton, and an anthropologist says they may have been taken deliberately.
A detailed inventory of the collection of bones showed only one piece of each of Kennewick Man's femurs remains in storage. When the skeleton was first assessed, both femurs were in six pieces.
The report was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court here, where eight prominent researchers have sued for the right to study the remains.
Doug Owsley, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution who did the Oct. 28 inventory, called the disappearance "a deliberate act of desecration."
The femurs are crucial to the study of the skeleton, he said.
"Femurs contain invaluable information to assess stature, size, robustness, functional morphology, age and population affiliation," Owsley said in his report.
It was not clear what efforts federal agencies are making to find the bones. The corps initially said the bones were noticed missing Sept. 10, 1996, but were not considered significant then because most of the skeleton was there.
The bones eventually dubbed Kennewick Man were found on the banks of the Columbia River in July 1996. Kennewick Man is the oldest and most complete human skeleton found in the Northwest and one of the oldest in North America.
James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist who helped to excavate the skeletal remains, said in the court filings that he is worried about cracks that have developed in the skull, pelvic bones, shin bones and left upper-arm bone.
Bindings removed from skull
Some of the cracks were present when Chatters removed the bones from the shallow water where they were found. He said he bound the skull with two broad rubber bands to keep the cracks from worsening.
"These bands have been removed from the skull, and their absence may account for some of the severe cracking and displacement of the bone," Chatters said.
The dispute over the disposition of the bones began when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had custody of the skeleton, announced it would turn over the remains to tribal representatives under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Five Northwest tribes have claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor and wish to rebury the bones immediately.
A group of scientists sued to stop the corps from returning the bones to the Indians without more study.
The Asatru Folk Assembly, a small group that practices a pre-Christian European religion, also has sued for access to the bones, although, unlike the tribes, its members are not opposed to further study.
In October, the skeleton was moved to Seattle's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, where a team of researchers led by the U.S. Department of the Interior are to conduct noninvasive tests for clues as to Kennewick Man's origins. Results are expected next year.
Owsley filed his report after spending 21 hours inspecting the bones in October. Among his findings:
-- The skull is in at least eight pieces but can be pieced together for a full set of measurements that can be compared with a database of skull measurements to help determine Kennewick Man's kin.
-- Thirty of Kennewick Man's 32 teeth are present, and almost all of them still are in place in the jawbones. Though the teeth were worn, small deposits remain that could provide information about his diet, and the wear patterns could reveal diet and eating habits.
-- The ribs were in more than 100 fragments but can be put together to about 80 percent complete. The hips were largely intact and the long bones of the arms and legs were mostly present, with the exception of the femurs.
Even with the missing bones, Owsley said, "Having seen the skeleton, I am more convinced than ever of its importance. . . . I am convinced the skeleton is complete enough that with careful, accurate reconstruction, many questions can be answered about his biological affinity, age and lifestyle."