To the dismay of many anthropologists, the bones of a teen-age girl who died in Minnesota 7900 years ago--one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America--have been returned to the earth. The remains of Pelican Rapids Woman, as she's called, and those of 8700-year-old Brown's Valley Man were among the bones of 1070 "culturally unaffiliated" individuals that were turned over to Sioux Indians and quietly reburied in a mass grave in South Dakota last month.
The Sioux claimed the remains under a controversial 1986 law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). "There's so much we could learn from [these remains]," says Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who reported on the reburial at a meeting last weekend in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Owsley says the loss to science has occurred just when new techniques are coming on line to probe the origins of these ancient people who, like 9300-year-old Kennewick Man, scientists say bore no resemblance to living Indian tribes. The Minnesota girl, found in 1931, had a wide, short face, a narrow nose, and long teeth that are "unique in relation to modern populations," he says.
Anthropologists are worried that NAGPRA will be used to put more unaffiliated remains--such as two early Nevada skeletons, the Spirit Cave and Wizard's Beach men--back underground, says anthropologist Robson Bonnichsen of Oregon State University in Corvallis. Indeed, Owsley says the Minnesota case is now being used as a model for federal officials trying to puzzle out how to treat culturally unaffiliated remains under NAGPRA.