Court releases ancient skeleton

Kennewick Man, the roughly 9,000-year-old human skeleton discovered in Washington State in 1996, has had his day in court and now appears headed for the laboratory. On Aug. 30, a federal judge overturned a Department of Interior decision to give the ancient remains to a coalition of Native American tribes for reburial.

The group of eight researchers that originally filed the lawsuit now has 45 days to submit to the judge a plan for studying the specimen. Interior Department officials have yet to announce whether they will appeal the decision.

The judge’s ruling centers on the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. No evidence shows either a “cultural affiliation” or a “shared group identity” of Kennewick Man with any modern Native American group, as required under that law, to justify the return of bones and other finds to the tribes, the judge concluded. Kennewick Man’s bones are thus fair game for scientific study.

The Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C., says that the new ruling still allows Native American tribes to reclaim the remains of their direct ancestors while granting scientists the right to study bones and artifacts from the distant past.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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