Kennewick Man is one of the best preserved skeletons of its age ever found. About 90 percent of the bones were recovered, allowing radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis.
"Kennewick Man is a very complete skeleton," said Doug Owsley, head of the physical anthropology division at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "It's very well preserved and it can tell us a lot."
Owsley noted that the cranial shape of Kennewick Man's head, along with some other very early skulls from the region, is distinct from that of contemporary Native Americans. This and other characteristics could offer clues to the origin of the various peoples who populated ancient North America.
"What's totally up in the air is their relationship to contemporary Native Americans," Owsley said. "The whole model for the peopling of the Americas is in flux, it's up in the air."
Study has suggested that the Americas were populated earlier than previously thought, and by multiple groups of people, Owsley explained. "That's what this whole decision was about, the right to ask questions of the past," he said, referring to the recent ruling on Kennewick Man. "If we aren't allowed to study [remains], we're never going to learn the answers about the world they came from."
After the skeleton was found and determined to be of Native American origin, the remains fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the federal property on which the bones were found.
A coalition of Native American tribes, including the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Nez Perce, and Wanapum, subsequently filed a claim to take possession of the ancient skeleton under provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The 1990 law mandates the return of human remains and artifacts to Native American tribes who can demonstrate a cultural affiliation with the deceased. The statute defines "Native American" as any person or descendent of a person who lived in North America before European settlement some 500 years ago.
Eight prominent anthropologists, however, blocked the transfer of the remains by filing a federal lawsuit. They maintained that the remains were of tremendous scientific value to all Americans, and that the nation's archaeological past should be open to study.
The scientists further argued that the "500-year rule" of the Native American grave protection act is arbitrary and unscientific, and that only DNA tests could prove whether Kennewick Man was culturally related to the tribes who sought to acquire the remains.
The court, in making its ruling, agreed that a cultural relationship between Kennewick Man and contemporary Native American tribes had not been proven. The decision states: "A thorough review of the 22,000-page administrative record does not reveal the existence of evidence from which that relationship may be established in this case."
The Kennewick Man suit was the first time scientists had significantly challenged the Native Americans grave protection act, and the ruling could be a watershed affecting other attempts to study Native American remains and artifacts.
The Society for American Archaeology, in a comment on the Kennewick Man decision, said the ruling will "balance the legitimate interests of tribes in reclaiming the remains of direct ancestors with the equally legitimate public interest in understanding the human past. Such balance was Congress's intent when [the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] was originally passed."
The claimant tribes, however, took a different view of the decision and the precedents they fear it has established. A spokesman said the court's decision "removes any barriers that would prevent the plaintiff scientists from demanding access to all Native American human remains for their scientific needs."
Owsley said the decision is important to help unlock the secrets of the past. "Rulings like this that deal with the role of science and its relationship with the federal government, these kinds of things come along perhaps only once in a century," he said. "It's an opportunity to study the pastthat's important to all Americans."
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