Turning a deaf ear to scientists' pleas, the U.S. government plans to sequester the only fragments not already in its hands of that famous early American, Kennewick Man. A federal task force is to decide what to do with the bones.
Kennewick Man, found 2 years ago on the banks of Washington's Columbia River, offers rare clues about the identity of inhabitants of the Americas 9000 years ago. Soon after the discovery (Science, 11 October 1996, p. 172 ), anthropologist James Chatters, who led the excavation, sent 1.5 grams of metacarpal bone to anthropologist David Glenn Smith at the University of California, Davis, for DNA analysis. But after Native Americans laid claim to the bones, the Army Corps of Engineers seized them. Research has been halted pending the outcome of a court case on who owns the bones.
Last month the U.S. Justice Department ordered Smith to surrender his bone. "We've been charged with maintaining responsibility for [the remains] and we can't take responsibility for things housed at UC Davis," says Stephanie Hanna, spokesperson for the Interior Department.
Smith is worried about the fate of what he calls "the only [known] uncontaminated piece of bone around." The samples, stored in flame-sealed test tubes and stashed in a fireproof safe are "a lot safer than the rest of the bones right now," he says. Religious groups have been allowed to hold rituals near the bones, which are housed at Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland, Washington.
The Interior Department and the Corps formed a joint task force in March, headed by Interior archaeologist Frank McManamon, to decide on the "origin and disposition of the remains." It will make further recommendations to the court in July. "At this point we haven't established at what point or even whether DNA testing will occur," says Hanna.