Science Trumps Ritual in Mystery Skeleton Row
Adam Tanner, Reuters, Feb 5
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) — Denying a request by American Indian tribes who sought an immediate burial, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Wednesday that scientists should be allowed to continue testing on a 9,000-year-old skeleton.
“It’s terrific,” said Robson Bonnichsen director of Texas A&M University’s Center for the Study of the First Americans and a plaintiff in the case. “The court has upheld the principle for scientific study of very early human remains.”
The legal battle pitting Bonnichsen and seven other scientists against the U.S. government and Indian tribes dates back to 1996, after two teenagers discovered a skeleton near the shore of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington.
Scientists dated the “Kennewick Man” remains as 8,340 to 9,200 years old, yet it was a puzzling find because its features differed from those of American Indians. Scientists hoped further study would shed light on early North Americans.
Indian tribes demanded the burial of the remains, which they believe belong to a distant relative, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied that request, backing a lower court ruling.
“From the perspective of the scientists-plaintiffs, this skeleton is an irreplaceable source of information about early New World populations that warrants careful scientific inquiry to advance knowledge of distant times,” Judge Ronald Gould wrote for the three-judge panel.
“From the perspective of the intervenor-Indian tribes the skeleton is that of an ancestor who, according to the tribes’ religious and social traditions, should be buried immediately without further testing.”
The battle was especially emotional because of the mystery the “Kennewick Man” represented. Aged 45 or 50 when he died, he had a projectile point unlike those seen in the region in his hip dating back to when he was 15 or 20 years old.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which had fought to bury the remains, said it was reviewing the decision but did not say whether it would appeal to the Supreme Court.
Until recently, most scientists thought North America was first populated after the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago when Asian mammoth hunters walked from Siberia. Yet recent evidence has hinted at late Ice Age human settlements on California’s channel islands and in Chile, suggesting earlier settlers may have arrived by boat from different regions.
The core of the legal arguments centered on whether the remains were Native American, as the law on reburial requires a link between the remains and an extant tribe.
“The age of Kennewick Man’s remains, given the limited studies to date, makes it almost impossible to establish any relationship between the remains and presently existing American Indians,” the ruling found.
Without a clear link between the skeleton and Native Americans, the court gave a green light to science.
We “affirm the judgment of the district court barring the transfer of the skeleton for immediate burial and instead permitting scientific study of the skeleton,” the court wrote.