PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- In a setback to scientists, the U.S.
Interior Department decided Monday that Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America, should be given to five American Indian tribes who have claimed him as an ancestor.
The decision comes after four years of dispute between the tribes -- who want the remains buried immediately -- and researchers, who want to continue studying the 9,000-year-old bones that have already forced anthropologists to rethink theories about where the original Americans came from.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the remains were "culturally affiliated" with the five tribes because the bones were found in the Columbia River shallows near the tribes'
"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 in a statement.
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 remains are being kept at the Burke Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Seattle.
The lawsuit was put on hold pending the Interior Department research. Now that Babbitt has issued his determination, the scientists say they will ask the judge to let the lawsuit go forward.
"Every decision they have made in the four years since the litigation was filed has been consistent with having a closed mind from the start," said Paula Barran, a lawyer for the scientists.
Found in 1996, Kennewick Man is one of the most complete ancient 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. Scientists determined Kennewick Man was in his mid 40s when he died and was about 5-foot-9. His face was narrow and had a large, protruding nose.
The bones were found on federal land managed by the county government in Kennewick, Wash., and the Interior Department agreed to determine what should happen them 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 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.
The five groups that have sought custody of the bones for immediate reburial contend study of Kennewick Man is a desecration of the remains based on tribal religious traditions.
Armand Minthorn of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said the tribes were pleased with the Interior Department's decision.
"We knew in our heart that this one is an ancestor, but we are saddened that it took the federal government so long to make this determination," Minthorn said. "We want to remind America that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made this same cultural affiliation four years ago, only to have that decision challenged by a small group of scientists."
The groups -- on reservations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho -- are the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, the Colville Confederated Tribes, the Wanapum Band, the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe.
"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,"
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 he said "the line back to 9,000 years ... made the cultural affiliation determination difficult."
------ On the Net: Department of Interior Website: www.cr.nps.gov/aad/kennewick