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The fight for Kennewick Man. (Jan. 3, 1997)
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owns the past?
A man with a stone spear-point in his right hip is currently the subject of an ugly court battle in Portland, Oregon.
The case is not about assault or murder -- this man died 9,000 years ago. The argument is about who he was, where he came from, and where he's going.
The human remains known as Kennewick Man are named for the town in eastern Washington State where he was found in 1996. Two speedboat racing fans stumbled across his skull on the banks of the Columbia River while watching a race. They reported the skull to police, who found more bones nearby. The local coroner and an anthropologist were called in to help solve the mystery of the bones' past.
The anthropologist examined the site where the remains were found. He studied the height, skull shape and jaw of the skeleton. His first guess was that the skeleton belonged to a pioneer from the 1800s who died in his 40s or 50s.
But another scientist said the spear-point in the hip looked older -- at least 5,000 years older. Then a scientific laboratory using a carbon dating test put the bones at 9,000 years old. That test set off a legal battle about who owned the remains.
Who owns the bones?
The Army Corps of Engineers, an agency of the U.S. government, was in charge of the site where the bones were found. The Corps decided that the remains should be turned over to the region's American Indian tribes in accordance with a 1990 federal law on Native American rights.
They argued that anyone living in America 9,000 years ago (way before Christopher Columbus) counts as Native American. The Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama, Colville and Wanapum tribes all claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor and said they planned to rebury the bones.
But before the remains were handed over, eight leading scientists sued the government to stop the transfer. They wanted the right to study Kennewick Man, which they said could provide vital clues about the earliest human settlers in the Americas. They said the government hadn't proven Kennewick Man was really related to the modern day tribes who claimed him.
The Native American tribes say their beliefs and traditions tell them they are related to Kennewick Man -- whom they often refer to as "The Ancient One." As an ancestor, Kennewick Man should be buried with dignity and respect, not subjected to destructive scientific tests.
By a judge's order, government experts studied Kennewick Man for three years to see if he was related to the modern tribes. They looked at archaeological and biological information, but also researched the history and traditional stories of the modern American Indian tribes.
Finally, in fall 2000, the Department of the Interior ruled that Kennewick Man should be given -- with no further scientific study -- to the Native American tribes for reburial.
The department said Kennewick Man was a Native American by definition and that most of the evidence showed he was culturally affiliated with the tribes in the area today.
But the scientists aren't convinced that Kennewick Man is related to the modern tribes, and their lawsuit resumes next week. They argue the government hasn't properly studied the remains. And they're concerned the law that returns early remains to Native Americans may be too broad -- it might hinder research on the first people to live in the Americas.
The scientists, who are from the Smithsonian and several universities, say Kennewick Man is especially important because he's so old and his skeleton is almost complete.
His discovery comes at a time of great uncertainty about who the first Americans were and where they came from, and the scientists don't want to lose this opportunity for what could be breakthrough findings.
The First Americans: How Did They Get Here?
Until recently, most experts thought the first Americans were big-game hunters who migrated from Siberia across a land bridge to Alaska at the end of the last Ice Age about 14,000 years ago. They traveled south and settled all over North and South America.
But anthropologists and archaeologists are now finding evidence that people lived in the Americas much earlier, maybe 20,000 or even 30,000 years ago.
There are also signs that humans lived on the Pacific Coast long ago. Could the first Americans have arrived from Asia and worked their way south by boat?
Some researchers also see a resemblance between early American and European stone tools. Did some of the first Americans come from across the Atlantic Ocean?
These are some of the questions scientists hope Kennewick Man can help answer. They say he holds clues about his physical traits, health, and lifestyle that can lead to a better understanding of the first Americans.
The American Indian tribes, however, see the scientists' claims for Kennewick Man as another in a long history of exploitation of Native American bones. The 19th century is especially notorious for Indian grave-robbing: scientists, hobbyists and museums eagerly sought and paid for artifacts and bones from Indian graves for their early-America collections. They say the Kennewick Man case could reverse the progress Native Americans have made in protecting the legal and treaty rights they have historically been denied.
What do you think? What should be done with the Kennewick Man skeleton? Can there be a compromise between the scientists' quest for information and the Native Americans' values and legal rights?
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