Why Do We Explore?

Jim Baird
Kennewick Man Skull
Kennewick Man’s skull and reconstruction Photo: Brittney Tatchell, Smithsonian Institution

I was reading an article about Kennewick Man by Douglas Preston, very interesting. They say they can figure out what muscles people used most in looking at their bones. In Kennewick Man’s case, 9000-year-old bones found in North America.


Thing is, he was not of a race that exists in the world today. And he is only genetically tied to current Native Americans by a thread. He was genetically closest to the modern bloodlines of people who now populate Polynesia and the Ainu people of Japan. It is thought that his people came to the Americas by boat across the north rim of the Pacific when ocean levels were lower than today but before they became low enough to expose the Bering Straight Land Bridge.

Scientists can tell from marks on his bones that he was right handed and threw a spear very regularly. They also can tell that he was one tough son of a bitch. Long before his death he had broken six ribs on his right side. They never healed properly because he never stopped throwing a spear. He even broke his shoulder bone from throwing so hard. On top of that, he lived 15 to 20 years with a 3” stone spear point lodged in his hip. Scientists also say his knee joints suggest he often squatted on his heels but they are unsure why.

Photo of the Ainu people of Japan, thought to be among his closest living relatives, were inspiration for Kennewick Man’s reconstruction. (National Anthropological Archives )
Photo of the Ainu people of Japan, thought to be among his closest living relatives, were inspiration for Kennewick Man’s reconstruction. (National Anthropological Archives )

From his bones they could also tell that he survived on a diet almost totally made up of sea mammals and drank solely cold glacial melt water from a high altitude. The closest marine coastal environment where one could find glacial melt water of this type was Alaska where it was concluded he was from. The amazing part is that they found his remains near Kennewick, Washington and some 300 miles inland to boot. He was a traveler.

The author of the story hypothesized that he was a storyteller who often crouched when enthralling his audience with tales of far-flung travels.

His story and many others in the peopling and exploration of this world, from the ancient to the modern era is one of the most fascinating ever told. The fact that much of it lies in obscurity makes it all the more intriguing. Thing about it is that there isn’t really a “why” to this story. Some scientists try to hypothesize what would have caused these great and daring human migrations, others just say it’s human nature to look around the next corner, over then next hill, or beyond the horizon. We are explorers at our very being. I feel I share this with Kennewick Man. And in my many self-propelled travels through some of the world’s remotest areas I’ve come closer to seeing what his daily life was like than the scientists studying him. For example, they don’t know why he often squatted. I think it was probably because he had to shit a couple times a day without a toilet.

My turn to hypothesize. After paddling the Stikine River in 2008 I visited a beach scattered with many petroglyphs on Wrangell Island, in Southeast Alaska. The petroglyphs there are especially interesting because several lie below the high tide line and are much older than the ones higher up on the beach.

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangle Island, Alaska Photos by Jim Baird
Petroglyph Beach, Wrangle Island, Alaska Photos by Jim Baird

Some people think that these older petroglyphs where created when ocean levels were lower – a theory that was snubbed by mainstream archaeology for years as it was believed that the Americas were unpeopled prior to 13,000 years ago when sea levels in this region were lower and it was thought to be heavily glaciated.

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangle Island, Alaska Photos by Jim Baird
Petroglyph Beach, Wrangle Island, Alaska Photos by Jim Baird

We now know that people were indeed here long before we initially thought. And that migrants may have made their way past the spot where these petroglyphs lie in boats after island hopping across the northern rim of the Pacific as much as 6,000 years before Kennewick Man’s passing. Some may have made their home in a glacier free refugium that we now know existed in Southeast Alaska. The ancient petroglyphs on Wrangle Island could very well have been carved by Kennewick Man’s people, whoever they were; but why?

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangle Island, Alaska Photos by Jim Baird
Petroglyph Beach, Wrangle Island, Alaska Photos by Jim Baird