Receptionist became scientist, was among first to carbon-date Kennewick Man

By: NED RANDOLPH - Staff Writer

From the moment his skull was found by the Columbia River in 1996 in eastern Washington state, the Kennewick Man's skeletal remains and origin have been fought over by scientists, American Indian tribes and government agencies.

But it was Palomar College alumna Donna Lee Kirner who first revealed his true antiquity ---- more than 9,000 years ---- and the importance to modern archaeology using a special form of Carbon-14 dating.

Kirner, who tirelessly studied the radiocarbon age of bone fragments, eventually succumbed to the limitations of her own bone tissue. Diagnosed with a rare form of bone marrow cancer, the Diamond Bar resident died of the disease July 31.


A 56-year-old mother and grandmother, Kirner will be remembered at a public memorial service at the Community Lutheran Church at 11 am. Saturday in Rancho Santa Margarita.

She was 48 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 multiple myeloma in 1998 and was given four to six months to live. She fought on for another eight years.

Her research on Kennewick Man's skeletal DNA revealed the remains had Asiatic origins, which supported the theory that modern man reached the Americas by crossing a frozen bridge over the Bering Strait that now separates Siberia from Alaska.

"She was very big into education, really interested in ancient societies and how certain peoples migrated to certain areas of the world," daughter Jennifer Hakes said.

Kirner's second husband, former San Diego Chargers lineman Gary Kirner, said the two would go to football games at his alma mater, USC, long after she became ills.

Gary Kirner retired from the NFL in 1970 and worked for Texaco for 33 years. In the end, he was the full-time caregiver for his wife.

"She used to look to me as a hero, and I looked to her as a hero, too," he said. "I was proud of her before (Kennewick Man), but that was nice for her. I was always impressed with her intelligence. She would talk about events at a party that happened five years ago, and I would look at her blankly. She could remember stuff in incredible detail. It was amazing. And even with this incredible intellect, she was humble."

Donna Kirner started from humble origins. For more than 10 years, while married to her first husband, she was a PacBell customer service representative, said Hakes, who was born in 1970.

Eventually, in 1982 Kirner decided to go back to school and enrolled in Palomar College against the wishes of her husband.

"She finally decided, 'This is not what I want out of life,' " Hakes said. At 33, her mother discovered a new passion in archaeology, while working on an excavation dig near Deer Springs Road.

She then transferred to UC Riverside, where she earned a bachelor's, master's and eventually Ph.D. in anthropology, studying under the renown scientist, Dr. Ervin Taylor.

"She was climbing the ladder as far as being an authority in her field and really becoming well known, and she got sick a year after that," Hakes said.

"It's sad that it took that long to start her life's dream and have it cut short. She was brilliant," she said. "That's what she loved to do. It was natural for her."

Kirner also took special pride in Palomar's role in her development, which led her through the University of California system.

"She went all the way through until she was making significant contributions to Carbon-14 dating knowledge," her husband said.

Using a powerful accelerator-mass spectrometer, scientists can count carbon atoms to determine the age of any organic material up to 50,000 years old.

Kirner helped fine-tune the process so tiny samples gave accurate estimates of age. She used various chemicals to crystalize the bone fragment, which she ran through the accelerator at Lawrence Livermore Lab in Berkeley.

"Donna, she got the date with the smallest sample size than anyone else (used) to that date," her husband said. "If you have something like the Kennewick Man, or whatever, you don't want to use a lot of that for your assessment. She used microsamples. That's where she was unique."

She was also strong. As her bones deteriorated under the painful disease, she never complained, said Gary Kirner, who was married to her for 18 years.

"He was real supportive of the whole archaeology thing," Hakes said. "He thought she was a brilliant scientist."