Three scientists yesterday lost their bid to prevent burial of two 9000-year-old human skeletons claimed by the Kumeyaay people of southern California. The 9th circuit federal court in San Francisco ruled against university professors who filed suit in 2012 to halt the repatriation in order to analyze the ancient bones. But the professors aren’t giving up yet and may appeal.
The skeletons, which the researchers say are scientifically valuable because of their antiquity, were discovered in 1976 near the swimming pool of the chancellor’s residence at the University of California, San Diego. After a protracted legal battle, the university agreed in 2012 to return the skeletons to the nearby Kumeyaay tribe, which claimed them. The three researchers—Timothy White, Robert Bettinger, and Margaret Schoeninger, all professors in the University of California system—then sued the university to halt the repatriation, arguing that the bones were not associated with the tribe and therefore were not subject to a federal law requiring that human remains be repatriated to their descendants. The scientists maintained that the Kumeyaay only arrived in the region a few thousand years ago and that the skeletons could provide important data on the origins of people in the New World.
Late in 2012, a district court rejected the suit on procedural grounds, arguing that the legal case had to involve the Kumeyaay and not just the university. Yesterday, by 2 to 1, the federal court upheld that position. “We are disappointed,” said Michael Reedy of McManis Faulkner, the San Jose law firm representing the scientists.
But the court battle seems likely to continue. Reedy said that he and his clients are contemplating an appeal and may request an en banc hearing, which would petition 11 justices on the 9th circuit court of appeals to consider the case. The plaintiffs have 2 weeks to take further action. Until then, the bones will stay under the jurisdiction of the University of California.