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Skeleton Case's New Bone of Contention

A fresh legal obstacle emerges for forensic anthropologists in their eight-year fight with Northwest tribes to study a set of 9,300-year-old bones.

August 02, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — For a few days last week, the nation's top forensic anthropologists thought they were finally going to get their chance to study Kennewick Man.

The eight-year legal battle over the 9,300-year-old bones, one of the oldest skeletons found in North America, appeared to be over after five Northwest Indian tribes decided not to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The tribes had claimed that Kennewick Man was an ancestor and should not be desecrated by scientific study.

Two courts had ruled in favor of the eight plaintiff scientists, who believed the bones -- discovered in 1996 along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. -- could yield insights on the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. The skeleton, in one preliminary study, was found to have some Caucasian features. It may help shed light on migration to North America apart from the theory that people walked across a land bridge from Asia.

But soon after the scientists' apparent victory, a new legal obstacle emerged late last week, this time from the federal government.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has custody of the skeleton and which sided early on with the tribes, has objected to so many aspects of the scientists' study plan that a new round of litigation is probable, according to a lawyer for the scientists.

The previous court battles focused on whether Kennewick Man should be subjected to scientific study. The new legal fight could center on how the bones will be studied.

"This case is long from over," said Alan Schneider, a Portland, Ore., lawyer representing the anthropologists.

Schneider said the government was using the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which empowers owners of archeological finds, to hinder the scientists' plans.

Schneider predicted that he would go to court "to compel the government" to hand over the skeleton. "That seems to be the direction we're heading," he said.

Jennifer Richman, a lawyer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, said that the scientists' plan was "subject to reasonable terms and conditions."

"We are trying to work it out," she said.

The tribes also want a say in how the bones are studied and hope to minimize the "destruction of tissue" and the "desecration of the remains," said Debra Croswell, a spokeswoman for the 2,500-member Umatilla Tribe in northeastern Oregon.

Along with the Umatilla, the Nez Perce, Yakama, Colville and Wanapum tribes also claim Kennewick Man as an ancestor. The tribes refer to the skeleton as the Ancient One.

The tribes relied on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 to claim Kennewick Man so that, in Croswell's words, "the remains could be honored and put back in the ground where they belong."

But a U.S. District Court in Portland and a federal appellate court said the tribes had failed to prove an ancestral link to the skeleton. The deadline to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court was July 19.

Kennewick Man, made up of more than 350 bones, is stored at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

Scientists think the bones belonged to a man who stood about 5-foot-9, suffered a severe spear wound to his hip, and was 40 to 50 years old when he died. The man, according to one reconstruction, had more angular facial features than those typically associated with Native Americans.

The skull resembled those of Polynesians or the Ainu, the original inhabitants of Japan, whose features were more Caucasoid, scientists say.

The discovery caused a stir not just among tribes, whose identity as the continents' original inhabitants seemed jeopardized, but also among scientists, whose long-standing theory on how the Americas were populated faced new questions.

As recently as the mid-1990s, the prevailing theory was that North and South America were first populated by people from the Asian interior who crossed the Bering land bridge during the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago.

Kennewick Man and the recent discoveries of ancient skeletons in South America seem to suggest that the continents were populated by several waves of early migrants who used different routes.

George Gill, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Wyoming and one of the plaintiffs in the Kennewick Man case, said evidence indicated that seafaring people from Southeast Asia or Polynesia could have reached the Americas by traveling along the Pacific Rim, landing somewhere in what is now South America. He said an ancient European people could also have reached the northeast corner of North America.

To believe that the early inhabitants of the Americas came from the same place "has always seemed a little too simple for me," Gill said.

Native Americans, he said, show a remarkable variety of physical features. And differences in tools, artifacts and cultural practices between tribes also suggest different origins.

Most of the new thinking on how the Americas were populated has remained the domain of a small group of scientists. Gill said this was partly because the discoveries came so quickly and the theories changed so rapidly.

A decade or two from now, he said, the scientific community could have a radically different view on the original inhabitants of the Americas.

Kennewick Man, which Gill calls "one of the most important archeological finds ever in North America," could play an important function in the evolving theory.

Gill said he hoped to get the chance to finally study the ancient skeleton.

"Most of us in this line of plaintiffs already have gray hair," Gill said. "The way it's going, we may not be around long enough."

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