The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian

Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle

For America's Oldest Skeletons

By Jeff Benedict

HarperCollins. 304 pp. $25.95

Kennewick Man, though dead for nearly 10,000 years, has recently become a household name. Anthropologist Douglas Owsley has not. Jeff Benedict aims to redress this apparent injustice and others as well: No Bone Unturned is the second of Benedict's books to take on Native Americans -- or, more precisely, the federal legal protections they have won in recent years in partial compensation for centuries of murder, oppression and expropriation.

Benedict is an investigative journalist, a lawyer and, it would seem, an aggrieved white man. Not that this is entirely a bad thing. In Without Reservation: The Making of America's Most Powerful Indian Tribe and Foxwoods, The World's Largest Casino (2000), Benedict offered a searing indictment of the Mashantucket Pequots' quest for tribal recognition and subsequent establishment of Foxwoods.

The Pequots are admittedly an inviting target: Even other Native Americans like to joke about the tribe's tiny size, great wealth and conveniently constructed Indian identity. Benedict convincingly described a handful of relatives of primarily white descent who parlayed their tenuous Native-American ancestry into phenomenal casino-generated profits through a series of backroom deals. The Pequots hated Without Reservation and challenged its accuracy. But the book raised legitimate questions about Indian territorial rights, tribal politics and casino licenses, and had a tabloid fascination besides.

In No Bone Unturned, his less compelling follow-up, Benedict sets his reportorial sights on the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA is designed to guide the return of Native-American remains, as well as funerary and sacred objects, to contemporary tribes. But there are no Native-American voices in this book, and Benedict shows little interest in the long, sorry history of grave-robbing that made NAGPRA such an important cause for Indian activists.

He instead focuses on a single, controversial aspect of the law's implementation: the battle over skeletons remote in time and quite different in bone structure from contemporary Native Americans. These skeletons -- of which, Benedict says, Kennewick Man is not the oldest but one of "the most well-preserved intact" examples -- are potentially key evidence against the theory that the Americas were settled by a migration of North Asian peoples across a Siberian land bridge to Alaska about 12,000 years ago. These old bones attest instead to the possibility of multiple migrations, including the peopling of America by South Asians. This is gripping stuff, but No Bone Unturned is too superficial to satisfy any deep anthropological curiosity.

The book is better and more detailed on the case itself, in which a group of scientists (including Owsley) brought suit in 1996 against the Army Corps of Engineers to try to stop the corps from transferring bones found on federal land in Washington State to a confederation of five Indian tribes for reburial. The scientists won the first legal round last fall, with a judge ruling that NAGPRA did not apply because the government had not established a genetic link between the bones and the tribes, but the case is on appeal.

While No Bone Unturned began as a legal study, Benedict tells us, it metamorphosed into a biography of Owsley, an obviously talented scientist who gave the author generous access to his life and work. Unfortunately, it is more valentine than biography, with Benedict continually gushing over Owsley, whose workaholism (he's given to sleeping overnight on a foam mat at his office at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History) sounds downright scary at times.

Writing in simplistic, Young Adult prose, Benedict describes Owsley as a moral as well as scientific superhero, and he offers a supporting cast of equally dumbstruck admirers whose thoughts he adduces with Woodward-esque certainty. Forensic anthropologist William Bass: "He had never taught anyone as driven or talented as Doug." One of Owsley's attorneys, Paula Barran: "She marveled at how he managed to stand out even among a group of rare scientists." And the author himself: "Few people in the world appreciated skeletons as Owsley did. Since bones were like books to him, Owsley's encounters with ancient skeletons were akin to a contemporary playwright stepping into a time machine and spending a day with Shakespeare."

Confusing similes aside, Benedict does manage to convince us that, if you have a bone or two in need of ID, Owsley is the man to call. Among other feats, the anthropologist has traveled to Guatemala to find the remains of murdered Americans, reclassified skeletons found at the Jamestown settlement as African-American, examined the remains of David Koresh and others incinerated at Waco, and helped identify victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Though sifting through bones may seem dry as dust, Owsley is clearly energized by the prospect -- and Benedict, to his credit, manages to convey some of his fascination to us. *

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic based in Philadelphia.