Tribes win rights to Kennewick Man

By AVIVA L. BRANDT

Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. – In a setback to scientists, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt decided today that Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America, should be given to five American Indian tribes who claim him as an ancestor.

The decision comes after four years of dispute between the tribes and researchers, who hoped to continue studying the 9,000-year-old bones that have already forced anthropologists to rethink theories about where the original Americans came from.

In a statement, Babbitt said the remains were “culturally affiliated” with the five tribes and were found in the Columbia River shallows near the tribes’ aboriginal lands.

“Although ambiguities in the data made this a close call, I was persuaded by the geographic data and oral histories of the five tribes that collectively assert they are the descendants of people who have been in the region of the Upper Columbia Plateau for a very long time,” Babbitt said.

Babbitt said he also concluded that the land adjacent to the river shallows where the bones were found had been determined by the Indian Claims Commission to be the aboriginal land of a number of the five tribes.

The land is federal land managed by county government as Columbia Park in Kennewick, Wash.

However, the fate of the bones may be decided in court.

Eight anthropologists, including one from the Smithsonian Institution, have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Portland for the right to study the bones. The tribes want the bones – now being kept at the Burke Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Seattle – buried without further research.

The lawsuit was put on hold pending the Interior Department tests. Now that Babbitt has issued his determination, the scientists say they will ask the judge to let their lawsuit go forward.

Found in 1996, Kennewick Man is one of the most complete skeletons found in North America. Radiocarbon-dating of the 380 bones and skeletal fragments place their age at between 9,320 and 9,510 years old.

The disposition of the bones has been hotly contested ever since the first anthropologist to examine Kennewick Man claimed the skull bore little resemblance to today’s Indian people.

The Interior Department agreed to determine what should happen to the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Professors who studied the bones for the Interior Department have said Kennewick Man appears to be most strongly connected to the people of Polynesia and southern Asia.

The find has helped force researchers to consider the possibility that the continent’s earliest arrivals came not by a land bridge between Russia and Alaska – a long-held theory – but by boat or some other route.

Pieces of the skeleton were sent to three laboratories, but none was able to extract DNA for analysis.

“Clearly, when dealing with human remains of this antiquity, concrete evidence is often scanty, and the analysis of the data can yield ambiguous, inconclusive or even contradictory results,” Babbitt said.

He said if the remains had been 3,000 years old, “there would be little debate over whether Kennewick Man was the ancestor of the Upper Plateau Tribes.”

But “the line back to 9,000 years … made the cultural affiliation determination difficult,” he said.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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