Bones Decision Rattles Researchers

The Interior Department has decided to turn over the 9300-year-old remains of Kennewick Man to the five Indian tribes that have laid claim to them. But scientists suing to study the remains, found 4 years ago on the banks of Washington's Columbia River, say they will continue to pursue their case.

Last March, federal Judge John Jelderks gave the government until September to try to get some DNA out of the bones before deciding whether to allow academic anthropologists to study them (Science, 17 March, p. 1901). Three labs have since failed to obtain any DNA and, thus, suggest a link to a particular people or culture. In a letter released Monday, however, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the bones have been studied enough and that they should go to the Indians under the controversial Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

NAGPRA applies to remains that are "native American" and "culturally affiliated" with existing groups. But many scientists say the Kennewick skull bears a greater resemblance to early Pacific rim inhabitants than to modern native Americans. And there is no cultural evidence connecting him to existing tribes: The only artifact accompanying the bones was a projectile point in Kennewick's pelvis. Nonetheless, in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Babbitt said reports by four scientists have persuaded him that "the geographic and oral tradition evidence establishes a reasonable link between these remains and the present-day Indian tribe claimants." He referred to the "continuity of human occupation" in the area for more than 10,000 years and the fact that oral traditions support a very long residency for the tribes.

Scientists who want to study the bones aren't happy with Babbitt's decision. It is "absolutely absurd" and "cannot be supported either scientifically or from a legal standpoint," says Alan Schneider, a Portland, Oregon, lawyer for the scientists. Anthropologist Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, one of the plaintiffs, says, "I can't imagine how the government can defend its decision in court." No trial date has been set.