A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. government must let scientists study the bones of Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton unearthed on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. The 30 August decision marks a clear victory for eight anthropologists who have fought to gain access to the 9300-year-old skeleton, arguing that it could offer new clues to how people first arrived in America. But the ruling may not end the 6-year legal tussle, as the Justice Department can still appeal the decision.
Kennewick Man, known as "the Ancient One" to Native Americans, was discovered in 1996. The 380 bones and bone fragments comprise one of the most complete sets of ancient remains ever found in North America. Government researchers completed an initial analysis of the skeleton in 1998. But it was placed out of scientific bounds 2 years ago, when then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt ruled that a 1990 law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NGPRA) required the skeleton to be given to five Native American tribes. They claim him as an ancestor and want to rebury him (ScienceNOW, 27 September 2000).
In a 73-page ruling, U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks of Portland, Oregon, called Babbitt's decision "arbitrary and capricious." After reviewing some 22,000 pages of documents, Jelderks ruled that there was insufficient evidence to link the skeleton to any modern tribe. "Allowing study is fully consistent with applicable statutes and regulations, which are clearly intended to make archaeological information available to the public through scientific research," Jelderks wrote. The case has sweeping implications, says plaintiff attorney Alan Schneider of Portland, because it sets a precedent giving researchers access to future discoveries of ancient remains. "It's going to be very difficult to establish that ancient remains are covered by NGPRA, and if they are that they can be affiliated with any modern tribes," Schneider says.
"We are delighted with the decision," says Robson Bonnichsen, who heads the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University in College Station and was a plaintiff in the case. He says researchers hope to carry out a wide variety of tests on the skeleton, including further skull measurements and possibly DNA tests, to pinpoint Kennewick Man's heritage. The ruling gives the researchers 45 days to submit a study proposal to the Department of the Interior, and another 45 days for the government to respond.