Japanese kayaker hopes to show Kennewick Man could have traveled by boat (w/ video)

By John Trumbo, Tri-City HeraldApril 10, 2012 

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- By week's end, Ryota Yamada hopes to slip his sea kayak gently into the Columbia River at Clover Island, embarking on the first leg of a 10,000-mile adventure to Japan.

The retired scientist who did nanotechnological research intends to paddle downriver to the ocean, then via the Inland Passage north to Alaska, and eventually across the Bering Strait to the Asian continent.

It will take him four summers, but if he succeeds in reaching his homeland, Yamada said, he will have shown that Kennewick Man could have made his way by boat 9,300 years ago from Japan to North America.

"That is my main purpose," he said Monday from his temporary camp on Clover Island in downtown Kennewick.

The 42-year-old Japanese native who lives near Tokyo said the story of Kennewick Man, whose skeletal remains were found on the shores of the Columbia River near Kennewick in July 1996, inspired him to attempt the adventure of a lifetime.

"This represents my entire life's work," he said, adding that he has been willing to invest all that he has to complete the journey.

Yamada will carry everything he needs to survive in the kayak, and he will travel alone, without a companion boat to assist in rough seas.

Kennewick Man's bones, which are being held for research at the University of Washington's Burke Museum in Seattle, are controversial.

While the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Nation believe Kennewick Man is one of their ancestors, researchers believe the ancient bones are not Native American in origin, but may be genetically linked to the Ainu people, who have lived in Japan for thousands of years and appear to have a genetic link to Northern Europe.

A professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, C. Loring Brace, told the Herald in a 2006 interview that Kennewick Man's heritage likely connected with the Ainu of Japan, or the Jomon people, who were ancestors of the Ainu.

Unlike Native American peoples, the Ainu and Jomon are believed to have had light skin, wavy hair and body hair, Brace said.

"I believe the Ainu and Jomon came like the Kennewick Man," said Yamada, who during the past week has visited the Columbia River near where the bones were found and the Kennewick Man exhibit at the East Benton County Historical Museum.

Mid-Columbia tribes unsuccessfully argued in a court case that the bones of Kennewick Man, whom they call the Ancient One, should be turned over to the tribes for ceremonial burial, according to terms of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.

The Asatru Folk Assembly, which follows early European pre-Christian theology, also claims Kennewick Man as an ancestor.

Yamada said he has been collecting the necessary equipment for his trip since arriving in Washington. He used a rental car to go to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he purchased a new sea kayak that is about 20 feet long and weighs barely 20 pounds.

It will take Yamada about four summers to complete the journey, paddling about 2,500 miles on each leg. He expects to get as far as Whitehorse in British Columbia this summer, including a side trip of about 50 miles up the Yukon River.

The Yukon Territory is familiar to the kayaker, who paddled about 200 miles down the Yukon River five years ago.

Yamada will hug the coastlines, coming ashore nightly to camp in his tent.

He will fish along the way, too. "It is important for me as a food supply," said Yamada, who has been planning the journey for two years.

"My hat is off to the guy," said Mike Meila, a Port of Kennewick employee who loaned a bicycle to Yamada for the week. Meila said Yamada has a huge challenge ahead, and he wished him well.

Kennewick Mayor Steve Young met Yamada on Monday afternoon, promising to provide him a personal message the kayaker will deliver in Japan.

"He's a very interesting individual. He was thrilled when I showed up," Young said.

Yamada said he wants to be "a bridge" between the Tri-Cities and his homeland, noting that the two share a nuclear legacy.

-- John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com

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