No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)

Chapter 27. VIRTUAL REALITY

November 1997
Carson City, Nevada

Riding in the car as Smithsonian photographer Chip Clark drove from the airport in Reno to the Nevada State Museum, Owsley looked at a computer-generated map of the United States. It indicated the archaeological sites where the oldest skeletons in the country had been found. Owsley reviewed them on the map.

Buhl Woman, a 12,825-year-old teenage girl found in a rock quarry in Buhl, Idaho, in 1989. Almost no study was performed on her before she was turned over to the Shoshone Bannock tribes in 1991 and reburied. After the fact, Owsley and Jantz obtained photographs of the skull and the limited data collected before reburial. From the photographs they calculated the skull’s true dimensions and determined Buhl Woman bore no affinity to modern American Indians.

Minnesota Woman, an 8,775-year-old adult woman discovered in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, in 1931 during a highway construction project. Owsley and Jantz examined it, confirming that the skeleton shared no affinity to modern Native Americans. DNA testing was also performed. Regardless, the Sioux tribes of South Dakota reburied it on October 2, 1999.

Browns Valley Male, a 9,710-year-old male found on private land and donated to Hamline University in Minnesota. The Minnesota State archaeologist decided to repatriate it to the Sioux tribes of South Dakota for reburial. Owsley and Jantz studied its skull features. It showed no affinity to modern Native Americans. The Sioux buried it on October 2, 1999.

The Hour Glass Cave burial, an approximately 9,140-year-old male in his forties who was discovered in the Colorado Rockies in 1988. With almost no research conducted, he was turned over to the Southern Ute tribe and reburied.

Wizards Beach Man, a 10,825-year-old man in his thirties who was discovered in Nevada around the same time the Spirit Cave mummy was discovered. The skeleton remains curated at the Nevada State Museum and has been claimed by Paiute tribes.

Grimes Point Burial Shelter. A female child less than ten years old at the time of death. The skeleton dates back 10,825 years. She has been claimed by the Northern Paiute tribes and is curated at the Nevada State Museum.

Besides gathering data on these skeletons, Owsley and Jantz had examined twenty-three other skeletons or partial skeletons between 8,775 years and 13,000 years old. Kennewick Man was not the oldest. But he and Spirit Cave man were the most well-preserved intact skeletons of the bunch.

Kennewick Man had another distinction. He was the key to whether the others got studied or buried. Owsley knew that if he and his colleagues lost their suit and Kennewick was declared off-limits to scientists and reburied, all the future discoveries of ancient skeletons would soon follow. He had to win. He just had to.

Clark and Owsley pulled up to the museum. Inside, Amy Dansie had the final report on the Spirit Cave mummy’s diet. The contents of its intestines had been thoroughly analyzed.

“So what was his last meal?” Owsley asked.

“Fish,” she said.

Dansie gave him a copy of the published report on the mummy’s intestinal contents. It confirmed that the mummy had ingested fish, as large amounts of fish bones, as well as some fish-eye lenses, some calcium-carbonate nodules, and animal fibers were detected. The report also contained aerial photographs of water habitat around the discovery site where the Spirit Cave mummy died. “Tui chub are found in most water regimes in the Great Basin, as are suckers,” the report said. “Based on this, a shallow water habitat may have existed around, or very near Spirit Cave.”

The diet report further convinced Owsley that the Spirit Cave mummy’s unique skull shape and size were not caused by radical changes in the environment. There has been radical change in human history in the last one hundred fifty years, both in diets and life expectancy rates. Such changes tend to translate into minor changes in skull size and configuration. But Owsley pointed out that what the Spirit Cave mummy was eating and what his parents were eating and what their parents were eating is probably not that different from what was found in his stomach. There might have been environmental changes that produced more fish or less fish. But nothing in the environment could account for the differences in skull shape between Native Americans and the Spirit Cave mummy.

Dansie had approved studies that went beyond determining the mummy’s diet. In an attempt to better understand the mummy’s facial appearance, Dansie had authorized a CAT scan of the mummy at a nearby hospital. Dansie had the CAT scan sent to a facility in Texas that uses a computer-driven laser—a stereolithograph—that reads CAT scan images. The laser beams reflect the image of the skull from the CAT scan onto a liquid plastic. The liquid plastic hardens as the laser hits it, ultimately forming a perfect reproduction of a resin skull.

Dansie gave a replica to Sharon Long, a reconstruction artist with a degree in anthropology. Long made a mold of the skull out of liquid rubber. From the mold, she produced a plaster cast.

Familiar with Long’s work, Owsley contacted her to schedule a time to sit with her and develop the mummy’s eye color, hair color, facial wrinkles, and skin pigment—details that would result in a virtual-reality bust of the Spirit Cave mummy.

Days later

Portland, Oregon

“What the hell’s going on?”

Alan Schneider could not contain himself. He reread the Army Corps proposal, making sure it said what he thought it said. It did. The corps planned to truck tons of rock and soil to the Kennewick Man discovery site, then drop it on the site with the aid of cranes and helicopters. After covering the site, the corps planned to plant dozens of fast-growing trees on it.

“Cover the site?” Schneider said to himself. “What is this bullshit?”

For months, Schneider had been trying to persuade the Army Corps to let two of the plaintiffs—both nationally renowned geologists—take sediment samples from the soil beneath the discovery area. Soil and other organic material likely held clues that could corroborate the carbon date assigned to Kennewick Man, as well as insights into the skeleton’s culture and environment. The geologists offered to cooperate with the tribes and to share with them the collection and analysis of soil samples.

One of the tribes expressed an interest in examining the soil. But the Umatilla had protested any geological tests on soil around the site. “Our preference is that nothing be done, that no digging be done, that the area be left alone,” a tribal spokesman told the corps. Schneider found the request troubling. The site was not a tribal burial ground. It wasn’t even tribal land. It was a public park. And the soil beneath the surface could hold important archaeological clues to Kennewick Man’s identity.

The corps rejected the geologists’ request for soil samples. Instead, the corps said it planned to bring its own geologists to sample the soil. The corps had sent Schneider a copy of their soil-testing protocol. It contained an oblique reference to burying the site after the corps received sediment samples.

Schneider immediately called the Kennewick area’s congressman, Doc Hastings, and Washington’s U.S. senator Slade Gorton for help. He explained to their staffs that the corps planned to cover up the site with rocks, soil, and trees, forming an impenetrable barrier against future archaeology or scientific research. Any beneath-the-ground clues to Kennewick Man’s identity would be forever lost. Hastings and Gorton agreed to intervene and asked Schneider to draft a proposed bill to protect the site.

While Schneider drafted the bill, the corps brought its geologists there in December 1997. They discovered a layer of volcanic ash that dated back 6,800 years. The government’s geologists concluded that the Kennewick Man bones were in soil that was beneath the ash, confirming he exceeded 6,800 years in age.

Schneider finished his draft legislation right after the government geologists finished their survey of the site. He sent the proposed bill to Washington as the corps made plans to cover the site. Legislative aides from Hastings’s and Gorton’s offices rewrote the bill and had it introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate. By the spring of 1998, Schneider received word from Washington that the bill had passed both the House and the Senate. All that remained was for a Congressional committee to resolve some minor differences in unrelated provisions of the bill.

Schneider called Barran to tell her the news. The site had still not been covered, and the bill made it illegal for the corps to follow through with their plans.

While they realized that the bill had still not been signed into law, the legislative staffers on Capitol Hill assured Schneider that the bill had no chance of being vetoed.

“We beat the government to the punch,” Schneider said. “We got the bills passed. They won’t cover the site.”

Barran said little before hanging up with Schneider. She had personal concerns that made it difficult to focus too much on the legislation. She had decided to leave her law firm and form her own and was in the process of finding office space and hiring attorneys. That was the least of her problems. Her husband, Richard, who had agreed to join her firm, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. The uncertainties of his future made the practice of law seem less significant. She counted on Schneider to carry the case until her new firm opened and Richard completed his biopsy treatments.

Schneider had barely got the site protected when he read the quarterly status report that the Justice Department had filed with the court. In it, the government disclosed that an expert it had hired to analyze the condition of Kennewick Man had reported that the skeleton’s femurs were missing. “How on earth can that be?” Schneider wondered. “Femurs are not tiny bones.”

He read on. The government told the court in its memo that it had examined the photographs taken by Jim Chatters on the night he boxed up Kennewick Man in his basement. Those photographs confirm that the femur bones were present at that time. The government then examined the inventory sheet that Umatilla archaeologist Julie Longenecker filled out the day she and a host of tribal members were present after Kennewick Man arrived at the Battelle storage facility. The inventory did not mention the femurs. A five-day gap existed between the day Kennewick Man arrived at Battelle and the day Longenecker took the bone inventory. “Several of the femur fragments noted in Dr. Chatters’ photographs are not with the remains,” the memo read. “Defendants are in the process of seeking additional information in order to determine the disposition of the femur fragments, including contacting representatives from the Benton County Coroner’s Office and counsel for Dr. Chatters.”

Schneider put down the memo. His mind raced back to the first court hearing, when a Justice Department lawyer implied that the scientists might have taken some bones. When were the femurs taken? he wondered, reaching for the case file on the Kennewick Man litigation. He flipped rapidly through the record, looking for the date on which the judge had ordered the federal government to properly preserve the scientific integrity of the skeleton. It was June 27, 1997. He reread the judge’s order. It expressly instructed the government to take necessary steps to ensure that the highest standards of curation would be employed throughout the course of the litigation.

Schneider put the order down. If the femurs were taken after June 27, 1997, then the government had violated a court order. If they were taken before the court order, then why had the Army Corps only now discovered them missing?

Schneider sensed foul play. Besides the skull, the femurs are the most crucial part of a skeleton, containing more evidence than any other bone in the human anatomy.

Schneider called Barran.

“Part of the skeleton has been heisted,” he said.

What?

“The femurs have disappeared. According to the government, they’re gone.”

“Where does this take us? What are our issues?”

“Well,” Schneider said, “if we don’t do something here, we may not have any skeleton left to measure if we win the lawsuit.”

Together they considered who had both motive and opportunity to take the femurs.

“One of the first things the government is going to do is point to Chatters,” Schneider said. “But this makes no sense. First of all, holding back the femurs would reduce the scientific value of Kennewick Man. And Jim has a strong professional and personal interest in preserving the importance of the skeleton.”

Barran agreed.

“Second,” Schneider continued, “he could never do anything with the bones. Once he was obligated to turn them over to the government, he couldn’t pop up and say, ‘By the way, I’ve got these other fragments.’”

Barran laughed.

“Then there’s the coroner,” Schneider said. “He has no motive to keep them. He could lose his job over this. What does he have to gain by keeping them?”

Barran and Schneider figured that there were two likely occasions for the bones to disappear: during the skeleton’s transfer from the coroner’s office to the Battelle facility or during the five-day period between being deposited at Battelle and being inventoried at Battelle.

Schneider agreed to handle the investigation into leads on the missing bones. Barran had to focus on her husband, who was preparing to undergo surgery to remove the tumor in his colon.