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Kennewick Man Goes on the Table

22 February 1999 7:30 pm
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Examinations will begin this week to decide, once and for all, whether a 9000-year-old skeleton qualifies as a Native American. Scientists are happy that Kennewick Man, found on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State in 1996, has finally made it into the lab, but they are worried that the government could put a crimp on the way the work is done and reported.

The skeleton already has a colorful history (Science, 10 April 1998, p. 190). Shortly after their discovery, the bones were seized by the Corps of Engineers on behalf of Native Americans under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). A group of scientists promptly sued for the right to study the remains, which have been claimed by a coalition of five tribes as well as a group representing ancient Nordics.

The Corps turned decision-making about the bones over to the Interior Department, and last spring a federal judge gave the department permission to proceed. Now Kennewick Man is ready for a full inspection by a team led by Frank McManamon, chief archaeologist of the National Park Service, starting with an examination of bones, teeth, soil samples, and a rock spearpoint embedded in the pelvis. The goal: to establish whether the man fits the law's definition of a Native American. If the findings are inconclusive, McManamon says scientists will consult with Native Americans before applying invasive procedures such as radiocarbon dating of bones and attempts at DNA analysis. The next step, if necessary, is to establish whether he has a "cultural affiliation" with any modern tribe.

Scientific observers are gratified that researchers are finally able to get at the bones, but they're upset with Interior's procedures and its interpretation of NAGPRA. McManamon says the term "Native American" applies to anyone found to be in an area before the Europeans got there, and it's not necessary to find "a biological link between modern tribes and ancient remains." But scientists say that definition is flawed; it would encompass "Norse remains in Maine ... and a lot of Japanese shipwrecks," complains anthropologist Robson Bonnichsen of Oregon State University in Corvallis, one of the plaintiffs in the court case. Instead, he and others contend that the law requires a relationship to present-day indigenous U.S. populations.

Interior spokesperson Stephanie Hanna says a preliminary report from the expert team is due in mid-March and data will ultimately be made public. But it's unlikely to be the final chapter in the saga. A lawyer for the scientists says their suit is "on hold" and could be revived pending the outcome of the current exercise.

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