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Paddling for Proof 

by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Where the hell did Kennewick Man come from? That's the question people have been asking since a hydroplane racing reveler literally tripped over his remains in the shallows of the Columbia River back in 1996. While the debate has been testy, science seems to have decided that, according to skull dimensions, the 9,300-year-old man most resembles natives of what are now the northern islands of Japan. OK, that can't be right, since most 20th century anthropology has told us that native Americans came from Siberia via the land bridge that connected to Asia tens of thousands of years ago.

No, that can be right, argues Jon Turk, once a chemist who has turned to a life of adventure. To prove that native Japanese may have come to North America by boat, he and a small party of paddlers recreated their 3,000-mile journey (done over the summers of 1999 and 2000) from Nemuro, Japan, to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Paddler magazine has since named it one of the 10 greatest sea kayaking expeditions of all time. Now Turk has told the tale in a book, In the Wake of the Jomon; he'll be at Auntie's tonight to read from it and to show slides from his trip.

Like Thor Heyerdahl, Turk has proven once again that epic ocean journeys are possible. And his trip gives more heft to recent arguments that perhaps the Americas were settled by sea more than anyone previously imagined.

The Jomon are the indigenous people of Japan, and Turk says there's lots of evidence that they were accomplished mariners. That they came to North America just after the Ice Age is proven, he says, by K-Man, and other finds -- including an elaborately buried man found near Fallon, Nev. There was even a recent article in Nature that suggested some Jomon people lived on the Baja peninsula as recently as 600 years ago. "Ten of the 11 oldest skeletons in North America are Jomon," says Turk from a stop on his book tour in Bellingham. "It's unequivocal that the Jomon got here."

According to this updated theory of ancient settlement, the descendants of native Americans, from Siberia, came later, when the ice had receded enough to allow passage over the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska. This is not an entirely agreed-upon scenario, however. In fact, the only thing that most anthropologists agree on is that there are more mysteries about ancient America than may ever be solved. Consider this: The Clovis people of New Mexico have been linked to early residents of what is now Spain. Or how about this: A recent find of an ancient set of remains in Brazil has been shown to have more in common with Africans than any known South Americans. The ancients appear to have really gotten around, making shifting theories common in the field; what's rare are people willing to prove their theories by walking -- or paddling -- in the ancients' shoes.

And that's what elevates Turk's book from dry anthropology to vivid adventure. To prove an academic point, he and his crew are out in their open boats, hugging the coastlines and seeing some of the most remote places on the planet.

"I've been a commercial fisherman, a yacht skipper and I've kayaked around Cape Horn, and this was simply the gnarliest water I've ever been in," says Turk, who lives in Darby, Mont. "We spent 36 hours in a whirlpool; we hit current shears that created 18- to 20-foot breaking waves on the open ocean; we hit sea ice, and with the swell and surf, chunks of ice the size of cars were being thrown around. It was the most terrifying sea journey I've ever been involved with."

Along the way, Turk meets the people of those remote shorelines, including native Russians. His observations of the current cultures juxtaposed with his meditations on the ancient world make this a truly existential journey. But it's a mind-bender, too. A Japanese guy settling down along the Columbia River some nine millennia before Lewis and Clark "discovered" it? Cool.

For some reason, we moderns always want to diminish the capabilities of those who came before us -- as though human inventiveness began during the Renaissance or something. But as we see in art, the ancients were capable of great things. Turk thinks that extends to travel: "Stone Age people had the same human instinct that Drake, Magellan, Columbus and all those guys had.

"With this trip, maybe I can be the spark for that debate."

Publication date: 05/26/05

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