PULLMAN, Wash.–Discovery of the skeleton called Kennewick Man along the bank of the Columbia River has revived the public’s curiosity about the first people who made the Northwest home. Vaguely written in bones and shells, projectile points and cordage, the legacy of the region’s original inhabitants is the focus of an ongoing review by Washington State University anthropologists.
Over the past 40 years, WSU archaeology teams have excavated dozens of Northwest prehistoric sites and collected hundreds of thousands of artifacts dating back 11,000 years.
Until the passage of the Native Americans Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, the materials were pulled only occasionally from their storage archives to confirm an archeological hypothesis or supplement a museum exhibit. The new law, however, requires that all collections held by institutions and museums be inventoried to determine if they contain human remains or ceremonial materials connected with burial rites. Those objects must be returned to Native American tribes for re-burial.
The bones of the Kennewick Man, accidentally uncovered a year ago, have become the subject of a court case brought by scientists who want to study the 9,000-year-old skeleton. Some contend that features of Kennewick Man’s skull are more Caucasian than Native American. Scientists want a chance to study the remains more closely, including conducting DNA tests, and have sued the Corps of Engineers to keep them from being turned over to a tribe before they can be examined. At issue is whether NAGPRA should apply to human remains ninety centuries old.
The Corps is the owner of the bulk of the 50,000 artifacts currently held by WSU’s Museum of Anthropology. During the 1950s and 60s when the Corps was constructing dams on the Snake River, WSU teams excavated rockshelters and other habitation sites that would be inundated by the dam impoundment.
One of the most significant sites, Windust Caves, produced materials being inventoried and catalogued this summer by team of graduate and undergraduate students headed by Mary Collins, assistant director of the WSU anthropology museum.
Located on the north bank of the Snake River downstream from the confluence of the Palouse River, the Windust Caves contained artifacts 9,000 years old. They surrendered dozens of boxes of projectile points and stone chips, animal bone fragments, and a smattering of marine shells, which suggest trading took place between interior and coastal peoples.
The Windust Caves were excavated from 1959-61. Later archaeology digs at the Marmes Rockshelter in the Palouse River canyon and Granite Point on the Snake River below Clarkston helped establish the period in the early cultural development of the region that anthropologists call the Windust Phase of the Plateau Culture, 10,000-8,000 years ago.
At the time, they produced what was believed to be “the largest Paleo-Indian artifact assemblage in North America,” wrote David Rice, a WSU anthropologist in 1972.
This is the fourth year for the inventory project, which is directed by William Andrefsky of WSU’s Center for Northwest Anthropology. Younger materials from other Snake River caves, Squirt and Votaw, also are being cataloged. Two prized pieces in the collection, a rare wood-handled knife with a stone blade and a spool of cord made from Indian hemp, came from Squirt Cave.
There will be several more years of work, says Collins, depending on funding by the Corps, whose resources are being strained by demands of the Kennewick Man case.
“The undertaking is a massive job for a small staff,” Collins says, “and it can be profoundly tedious cataloging hundreds of tiny fragments of bone or stone flakes. “But we will eventually have a collection brought up to contemporary curation standards.”
The completed database will provide “incredible opportunities for archaeologists and anthropologists, as well as interested Native Americans and the general public,” she says. “For example, if someone wants to examine all of the obsidian projectile points that are at least 8,000 years old, they can easily find where they came from and where they are archived.”
Hidden somewhere in these treasure boxes may be another clue to who the first Northwesterners were and where they came from.