More Tests for Kennewick Man

Ever since the ancient skeleton called Kennewick Man was found on the banks of Washington's Columbia River, the U.S. government has kept the controversial remains under lock and key. This has outraged Native Americans, who want to bury the bones, while also angering anthropologists, who want to study them. Now both sides may have to wait 4 months longer than expected for a decision: The government has asked for an extension of a court-ordered deadline to decide whether the bones are "culturally affiliated" with existing tribes.

Last month, the Interior Department announced that Kennewick Man is more than 9000 years old. That meant the bones are indeed those of a Native American--defined by Interior as anyone who was in America before the Europeans took over. But whose ancestor was he? Federal officials gave four university anthropologists a month to gather historical and archaeological information to see if they could figure it out.

On 1 February, however, officials decided they needed DNA testing and comparisons with existing genetic profiles of Native American groups--even though expert consultants said the chances of meaningful results were slim. As the process will entail consultations with five tribes (who generally oppose further testing), the whole DNA exercise, if carried through, will take about 6 months. The trouble is a 24 March deadline to decide whether to allow scientists--other than those selected by the government--to study the remains, imposed by a U.S. District Court judge last fall. According to the ruling, the government must respond to a long-running suit by scientists who want access to the remains.

To buy time for the DNA tests, the Justice Department, on behalf of Interior, has therefore requested a 4-month extension--to the dismay of the plaintiffs. "We're very appalled that they're [the government] trying to drag their feet again," says the scientists' lawyer, Alan Schneider of Portland, Oregon. "Last September the court gave the government 6 months so they would have adequate time to do DNA testing if they chose." He promises "a response opposing the extension in the next week or two."