9,300-year-old bones set off dispute on race, property Remains near Indian land appear to be Caucasian

September 30, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- When James Chatters recently was asked by the sheriff in this desert community to take a look at a half-buried skeleton on the shore of the Columbia River, Chatters thought he was in for another mildly intriguing forensic mystery.

The skeleton was that of a man, middle-age at death, with Caucasian features. Embedded in the pelvis was a spearhead.

At that point, recounted Chatters, an anthropologist based in nearby Richland, Wash., "I've got a white guy with a stone point in him." He added: "That's pretty exciting. I thought we had a pioneer."

The real stunner came last month, after bone samples were sent to the University of California at Riverside for radiocarbon dating.

The conclusion: The skeleton of the "pioneer" is 9,300 years old.

In the world of old bones and educated conjecture about the first Americans, the Columbia River skeleton is a riveting discovery. It adds credence to theories that some early inhabitants of North America came from European stock, perhaps migrating across northern Asia and into the Western Hemisphere over a land bridge exposed in the Bering Sea about 12,000 years ago, or earlier, near the end of the last Ice Age.

Old they may be, but the bones that surfaced on the Columbia River shore two months ago are embroiled in a very modern rift over matters of race and ancient ties to the land.

All the excitement over the discovery of one of the best preserved and oldest skeletons ever found in North America is tempered by a fight over who owns the remains. Leaders of the Umatilla tribe, whose reservation is just across the Columbia in central Oregon, say the remains belong to them because they are those of an ancestor.

The tribal leaders say a 1990 federal law designed to protect American Indian graves gives them a legal right to the bones.

The tribe plans to rebury the skeleton within 30 days, without giving experts another look. To do that would be sacrilegious, the tribal leaders say.

Anthropologists say a discovery of such enormous importance merits a bit more time for study. They say the 1990 law is being misused in this case because some American Indians fear the implications of the discovery.

"This is a battle over who controls America's past," said Robson Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University.

For now, the federal government has sided with the American Indians. No DNA tests will be performed, the government says, and no additional photographs will be allowed.

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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