American anthropologists who have sued for the right to study an ancient human skeleton have won a round in an important legal fight. A U.S. District Court judge has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider its decision to return the bitterly contested bones to American Indian tribes.
The male skeleton, known as "Kennewick Man," is a rare representative of the earliest people to inhabit the Americas (Science, 11 October 1996, p. 172). After Kennewick Man was discovered last summer on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state, a team at the University of California, Davis, extracted ancient DNA from a bit of its finger bone for analysis--the only way, they say, to determine which tribe should receive it. But because the skeleton was found on federal land, it falls under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Last October, the corps, which has jurisdiction, ordered a halt to the DNA work and announced that it would give the skeleton to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which it considered "culturally affiliated." The corps later rescinded that order but has kept the skeleton locked away and unavailable for study.
In the new decision handed down last week in Portland, Oregon, U.S. District Court Magistrate John Jelderks invalidated all the corps' orders in the case and criticized the "flawed" procedures used by the agency, which he said "acted before it had all the evidence or fully appreciated the scope of the problem." Jelderks also asked the corps to report back to him with its decision on the case, and to answer several questions, including whether repatriation under NAGPRA required a biological or cultural link between bones and living tribes, and how such a link would be determined.
Although the court stopped short of allowing study of the skeleton, it has opened the door for future research by recognizing the scientists' claim as legitimate. "It's a landmark ruling," exulted Alan Schneider, the Portland attorney for the scientists. Corps attorney Daria Zane declined to comment for the record.