9,300-year-old mystery continues


Bones: A new legal obstacle arises for anthropologists after eight-year court battle to study Kennewick Man.

August 04, 2004|By Tomas Alex Tizon | Tomas Alex Tizon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEATTLE - For a few days last month, the country'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 finished after five Northwest Indian tribes decided not to pursue their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The tribes claimed that Kennewick Man was an ancestor and should not be desecrated by scientific study.

Two courts ruled in favor of the eight plaintiff scientists who believe 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, suggesting that groups other than Asians might have migrated to the continents thousands of years ago.

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

Late last week, the Army Corps of Engineers, which has custody of the skeleton and had sided early on with the tribes, objected to so many aspects of the scientists' study plan that a new round of litigation is probable, the scientists' attorney said.

The earlier court battles focused on whether Kennewick Man should be subjected to scientific study. The new legal fight will be about how his bones will be studied.

"This case is long from over," said Alan Schneider, a Portland, Ore., lawyer representing the scientists. Schneider said the government is using the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which empowers the owners of archaeological finds, to hinder the scientists' plan of study.

Schneider predicts that he will have to go to court "to compel the government" to hand over the skeleton. "That seems to be the direction we're heading."

Jennifer Richman, an attorney for the Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, would say only that the scientists' plan was "subject to reasonable terms and conditions."

The tribes also want to have a say in how the bones are studied, hoping to minimize the "destruction of tissue" and the "desecration of the remains," said Debra Croswell, a spokeswoman for the 2,500-member Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation 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 him as "The Ancient One."

The tribes relied on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 - intended to protect tribal burials - 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 later a federal appellate court said the tribes 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 being kept at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

Scientists believe the bones belonged to a man who stood about 5 feet 9 inches tall, 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 American Indians.

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 only 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 was turned on its head.

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 about 11,000 years ago.

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

George Gill, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Wyoming and a plaintiff in the Kennewick Man case, said evidence indicates 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 all came from the same place "has always seemed a little too simple for me," Gill said. American Indians, he said, show a remarkable variety of physical features. And differences in tools, artifacts and cultural practices among tribes also suggest different origins.

Most of the "new thinking" on how the Americas were populated has not reached the public yet, remaining in the domain of a small group of scientists. Gill said this is partly because the discoveries are coming so quickly, and the theories changing so rapidly, that scientists can barely keep up. A decade or two from now, he said, the scientific community will probably have a radically different view on the "original" inhabitants of the Americas.

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

Gill hopes he'll get a chance to finally study the ancient skeleton.

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

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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