Kennewick Man and the Dorsets

It’s the  most beautiful morning ever here in Washington, but I’ve got Greenland on the brain, and the High Arctic, and permafrost, and seal meat. If you lived in the frozen north back in the day, you hunted seals, maybe lurking around the airholes so that when one popped up for a breath you could nail it.

I’ve eaten emu, kangaroo, snake, gator and frog, and some of the stuff we ate in the cafeteria in elementary school may not technically have come from mainstream agricultural sources (the cooks relied heavily on Squirrel Helper), but I’ve never eaten seal, and I have no idea what it tastes like. I’m guessing it tastes a little bit like sea lion. And isn’t as chewy as walrus.

Anyway, seal was a mainstay of the diet of the Dorset people who lived for 4,000 years in near-total isolation at the top of the world, as I report in today’s paper. The Dorsets somehow survived in that harsh terrain with minimal contact with other cultures, according to mitochondrial DNA evidence. This story comes a few days after another story on paleoamericans, on the Kennewick Man. I got a preview of a huge book coming out on the KM, from Doug Owsley and Richard Jantz and many other authors. I was most struck when, in an interview, both Owsley and Jantz said the Kennewick Man may have been an Asian — that he literally may have been born in Asia and in the course of his lifetime  rambled all the way to the Columbia River Valley. Your mileage may vary when it comes to this theory.

Sitting on my porch, pondering another cup of coffee, I can’t help but wonder if these folks found life easy or hard or simply couldn’t imagine anything different.

Why didn’t the Dorsets move south, to someplace warmer, like Cocoa Beach? Because there were already people down there and there weren’t seals to hunt and they had a way of doing things that worked quite nicely. They did, in fact, move around, when the animals became hard to find or the climate changed in some way — there’s a lot of territory at the top of the world.

[Update: Curmudgeon from the Boodle points out: "The Dorsets got their name from archeologist Diamond Jenness in 1925 when he received some artifacts found on Cape Dorset on the southwesternmost tip of Baffin Island at the far northern mouth of Hudson's Bay, in Nunavut. Jenness was the first to recognize the Dorset culture as something different from the modern-day Inuit culture. Cape Dorset was named by its discoverer, English explorer Capt. Luke Foxe, one of many arctic explorers searching for the Northwest Passage. Foxe named the location after one of his patrons, Edward Sackville, 4th Earl of Dorset. Thus an extinct tribe of pre-historic wanderers from Siberia are named after a region of southern England near the Isle of Wight."]

As for Kennewick Man, he may have been on a protracted southern road trip when he came down the coast, following seals and other marine animals. The physical description of him — 5 foot 7 inches tall, about 160 pounds, with powerful limbs and a bum right shoulder from too many throws across the diamond to first (like Ryan Zimmerman) — brings to mind a real action figure of a guy. He kept throwing his atlatl* despite five broken ribs; they never knitted properly after his injury. Grit your teeth and bear it.

We’re so soft by comparison. I can’t throw my atlatl if I’ve got so much as a hangnail.

I’m trying to imagine a life in which the nearest Starbucks is not just thousands of miles away but thousands of years in the future. [Shudder.]

* An editor rightly questions whether one can “throw an atlatl.” It’s a tool used for throwing a spear or dart. Back in the early 1970s the anthropology graduate students in Hogtown would bring one to our big backyard and hone their atlatl skills. Technically I guess you would say “throwing his spear” rather than “throwing his atlatl” though doing so would prevent me from using the Scrabblicious word “atlatl.”



Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · August 23