Scientists are closer than ever to conducting research on Kennewick Man after a U.S. appeals court ruled last week that a law protecting Native American human relics does not apply to the 9300-year-old bones. The ruling could mark the end of a 7½ year battle that has pitted researchers against the U.S. government and several Indian tribes.
"I'm thrilled," says Washington archaeologist James Chatters, who was the first scientist to get a look at the bones after their 1996 discovery on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seized them shortly thereafter under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires Native American remains to be returned to related tribes. Eight scientists sued the government for access to the remains, starting a tug of war that's been going on ever since.
The 4 February opinion, by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, affirmed a 2002 ruling by an Oregon district court that prevented the Department of the Interior from turning the bones over to four Indian tribes for reburial. "NAGPRA's language requires that human remains, to be considered Native American, bear some relationship to a presently existing tribe, people, or culture," stated Judge Ronald Gould. He could find "no evidence, let alone substantial evidence, that Kennewick Man's remains are connected … to any presently existing indigenous … people [through] genetic or cultural features." The oral histories that the tribes argued showed a possible cultural relationship were neither "specific" nor "reliable," Gould ruled, adding that cranial measurements indicate that "[his] features differ significantly from those of any modern Indian group living in North America."
The defendants have 45 days in which to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court or seek a full hearing before the 11-judge circuit court. But if last week's ruling is indeed the end of the judicial road, the next step is for the government to give the green light to a 50-page research plan involving some 20 researchers.
The plan includes studies of dental enamel and dentine to help determine where Kennewick Man lived and what he ate. Chatters says the teeth may also offer a better shot at getting some usable mitochondrial DNA, which three labs have tried unsuccessfully to obtain from Kennewick's bones. There is also more work to be done to pin down the man's age, his injuries (there was a spear point in his pelvis), and cause of death.