by Cynthia van Gilder
Most everyone in the anthropological community is familiar with the controversial human skeletal find known as Kennewick Man. Discovered in 1996 by some hikers on the Columbia River, Washington, Kennewick Man was initially identified as a 19th century Euro-American settler, but closer inspection revealed a projectile point embedded in his pelvis that was common about 9,000 years ago, a date that radiocarbon dating later confirmed. In short, Kennewick Man sparked an epic controversy around two primary topics: 1) who should have legal stewardship of the remains; and 2) what was “Kenne’s” race.
Those interested in reviewing the sensational circumstances surrounding Kenne’s eventual disposition (these included the mysterious dumping of many tons of rock on the original location of the find by the Army Corps of Engineers, and a multi-year law suit in which scientists won the right to study the skeleton), will find many sources on- and off-line.
Equally intense was the controversy surrounding the investigating archaeologist’s characterization of the skeleton’s features as “caucasoid” – a word that the media immediately equated with caucasian – rather than a set of metric traits characterizing a variety of world populations including the indigenous Ainu of Japan. A reconstruction of Kenne’s face was widely circulated in which he bore a striking resemblance to Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a character played by British actor Patrick Stewart.
The publication of this image in association with the very early date of 9000 BC, led to rampant speculation in the public media: had Europeans been the earliest settlers of the North American continent? And so, in the blink of an eye, the 19th century fantasy of a lost race of White Americans was revived, although nobody can say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints looked surprised.
This was the Kennewick Controversy that I was teaching in Spring of 2006 to my class on Native American cultures when in April a shocking event occurred: Time magazine published an opulent cover portrait of Kenne in which he looked decidedly mongoloid, his features invoking those of modern Arctic peoples. How could this be, the class demanded to know? We scoured the magazine article for clues. Who had authorized this new reconstruction? The students demanded answers.
There was no mention of the cover image in the article. There was no acknowledgment of how very much this representation diverged from previously published images. Encouraged by the students, and now personally quite intrigued, I wrote to the scientists quoted in the article asking if they had authorized Kenne’s new face. I received no response. I wrote to Time asking where they had gotten the cover image and they referred me to the tiny artist’s credit on the inside of the cover: Kam Mak.
Two days and many Google inquiries later, I had discovered that Kam Mak had a part time academic appointment at an arts college in New York City and had left my home phone number with the department assistant, saying I was an anthropologist eager to discuss his recent cover art for Time. When I came home from teaching the next day, there was a message on my answering machine, “Hello, this is Kam Mak. I am delighted in your interest. Please phone me at my home in Virginia.”
Kam Mak, I discovered, is a charming and thoughtful man with a gift for painting vibrant images that touch the soul. Born in Hong Kong, but raised primarily in New York, he has illustrated the covers of many young adult novels and has written and illustrated a beautiful children’s book about his childhood in Chinatown. We had much to talk about immediately, as he was working on a project depicting food in Chinese markets and I had just finished teaching a class on food and ethnicity that had included a week stay in Honolulu to explore ethnic cuisine there.
I turned the conversation to Kenne, however, and learned the following: 1) Time had not requested a particular image; 2) they had contacted him based on his having done a portrait for them several years earlier with which they were pleased; 3) they had sent him a handful of articles about the skeleton, so he did know something about the controversies. So, how, I pressed, had he decided on Kenne’s features? Mr. Mak’s response was unexpected and yet made a delightful sense: he had used his own face!
Yes, and Mr. Mak was kind enough to send me a digital photo of himself and there it was – the high cheekbones, the set of his jaw and lips, even the thoughtful expression in the eyes – our new Kennewick Man was Kam Mak – “with a little Eskimo thrown in” – as he described it to me.
The students were initially horrified, after all I had spent the semester talking about how significant images of Native Americans were to their public perception – from the cigar Indians to contemporary sports mascots. I talked them down, however, and soon they saw the humor in the situation and appreciated the humanity of Kam Mak’s vision of Kenne not as a symbol or stereotype, but a real man, like himself.
My choice for best book on Kennewick Man and why he caused such a fuss: Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-09224-1
Originally published here at e.com in August 2007.