An ancient man's bones of contention

He was a sturdy man of middle years who may have looked a bit like British actor Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek" fame, about 5-feet, 9-inches tall, and living in a dangerous world.

The three-inch spear point, buried in his hip when he was a teenager and carried for the next 30 years or so, attests to his toughness. But given the detailed attention with which he was buried along the banks of the Columbia River more than 9,000 years ago, he likely had a family and community that cared for him as well.

"Kennewick Man," named for the town in eastern Washington near where he was found, continues to fascinate scientists as he gradually reveals more about himself. And as he does so, he tells us more about the first Americans - where they came from, how they got to the continent, and the kind of lives they lived.

Diverse cultures want to claim him as their own. Indian tribes in the area say he is an ancestor who should not be probed and prodded by anthropologists, but turned over for respectful reburial, as is required by federal law.

American followers of Norse pagan religions believe he may be of Caucasoid descent and therefore of European stock. Such people arriving millennia before Columbus would be an astounding revelation, they argue, and the remains should be given to them for disposition.

Believing that nothing can be settled without further scientific investigation, a group of eight prominent researchers (including three from the Smithsonian Institution) has filed a suit in federal court.

The latest scientific data show that the man found by college students who were hiking along the Columbia River in 1996 is neither European nor related to present-day native Americans. Instead, according to a report released last week by the US Department of the Interior, Kennewick Man shares strong physical affinities with populations in Polynesia as well as with the Ainu people, an isolated Caucasoid group that lives in northern Japan.

But the dispute is far from over. While the radiocarbon dating that tentatively set Kennewick Man's age at about 9,300 years can determine when he lived, it tells nothing of his lineage. That would require more study, including DNA testing.

US Judge John Jelderks of Portland, Ore., recently declared that "any decision that did not include DNA analysis would probably be challenged as arbitrary and capricious."

The dispute centers on whether Kennewick Man has any "shared group identity" or "cultural affiliation" with modern-day tribes in the Columbia Basin. If so, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires that such remains be turned over to the tribes.

Evolution vs. creationism

Native American groups assert that their ancestors did not travel over a land bridge from Asia (the commonly held belief), but have inhabited North America since the world was created. They are opposed to scientific detective work, which might prove otherwise or dishonor such ancestors. In a sense, the argument thus is one of evolution versus creationism, "truth" based on factual science versus that which is revealed through oral history.

The controversy over Indian remains has its roots in 19th-century attitudes toward native Americans. In 1868, the US Surgeon General ordered Army officers in the West to collect Indian skeletons to find out (by measuring skull size) whether native Americans were inferior to whites. Since then, Indian remains have been removed from thousands of grave sites to become part of private collections, museum exhibits, and university labs.

For the most part, the Interior Department operates under the assumption that any pre-Columbian remains fall under NAGPRA and therefore should be turned over to the appropriate tribes. In response to the scientists' lawsuit challenging this conclusion, the ongoing studies were ordered. These have been moving along slowly, prompting Judge Jelderks to complain of "what appears to be a pattern of unnecessary delay in this action."

Meanwhile, US Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings (R) of Washington has introduced a bill that would change NAGPRA to make it easier to study ancient bones and avoid some of the disputes surrounding Kennewick Man.

"Current law governing the treatment of historic human remains is so vague and confusing that it's no surprise authorities have had difficulty reconciling the need for scientific study with respect for the customs and traditions of Indian tribes," says Mr. Hastings. "It's time to make sound science the deciding factor."

The ability to determine not only age but also origin of prehistoric specimens - whether from bugs, flowers, or humans - has made great advances in recent years. DNA analysis, in particular the polymerase chain-reaction process developed in 1985, has led to single-molecule analysis and the study of substances millions of years old.

Rethinking the term 'native American'

At the same time, anthropologists and archaeologists are becoming more firm in their understanding that prehistoric North America was settled by groups from different parts of the world, not just those who arrived via the Asian land bridge. This raises profound questions about what it means to be "native American" and whether it's appropriate to destroy remains - which is required to do radiocarbon and DNA studies.

"We recognize and sincerely regret that destruction of any amount of bone is offensive to some religious and traditional tribal beliefs," says Francis McManamon, chief archaeologist for the Interior Department. "However, to reasonably answer the question of whether Kennewick Man is native American for the purposes of [NAGPRA], and to undertake any further studies if he is, it is vitally important to know whether these bones are 80 years old or 800 years old or 8,000 years old."

In any case, says Dr. McManamon, "Kennewick Man may provide a link between early migration and the people we know were here when the Europeans arrived."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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