Disputed Prehistoric Bones OK to Study, U.S. Rules

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 5, 2002

The remains of Kennewick Man, a nearly intact North American skeleton more than 8,000 years old, have been at the center of a controversy since they were found along the Columbia River in Washington state in 1996. Native American tribes have claimed the bones as those of an honored ancestor, "Ancient One," and objected to scientific study of the remains. Now, after a six-year battle, a federal judge has ruled in favor of the scientists. The recent ruling by U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks makes Kennewick Man's ancient remains available to anthropologists who stressed their enormous scientific value.

The decision sets aside former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit's decision to return the skeletal remains to a coalition of five Native American tribes. The tribes had hoped to rebury the human remains without further examination of them.

Controversial Bones

The ancient bones have been controversial since they were discovered in 1996 during a hydroplane race on the Columbia River. Spectators stumbled upon the landmark find while wading in shallow water along the river's edge.

Initially, Kennewick Man was thought to be from the late 19th or early 20th century, but subsequent radiocarbon dating indicated the remains were about 8,000 years old.

That date was supported by the discovery of a sharpened stone projectile point found imbedded in the skeleton's pelvis. The fragment is from the so-called Cascade phase, which occurred between 9,000 and 4,500 years ago.

Scientists determined that the wound from the projectile was not the cause of Kennewick Man's death.

The ruling was a disappointment to the claimant tribes. Many of their members have called for an immediate reburial of the remains in accordance with the tribes' religious and spiritual beliefs.

"This treatment of Native American remains as scientific specimens deprives native people of the basic right to properly bury or care for these ancestors," the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said in a statement.

Scientists have argued, however, that Kennewick Man has the potential to greatly increase evolving knowledge of how the Americas were populated and where the early inhabitants came from.

"Very Complete Skeleton"

Continued on Next Page >>


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