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7 February 2004
Scientists wins ancient bones battle

A US appeals court has given permission to scientists to study a 9,000-year-old skeleton - despite the objections of some Native American tribes. The bones were found by two teenagers on the north bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. Native Americans want to bury what they call the remains of a distant relative, but scientists say the unusual features of the skeleton need further study. Appeal judges ruled it was impossible to establish a relationship between the Indian tribes and "Kennewick Man".
     "It's a terrific decision; it's seven-and-a-half years coming," said Professor Robson Bonnichsen, one of the scientists who fought the case. Because "limited studies to date" could not establish the link to modern peoples, the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the green light to the scientists. "If the tribes were to prevail in their argument, it would effectively shut down the study of all early (archaeological or anthropological) sites in this country," said Alan Schneider, a Portland attorney representing the scientists suing for access to study the remains. "The court has done the tribes a great injustice. Congress wanted to give tribes the right to decide if such studies should go forward. ... The court has now taken that right away," responded Rob Roy Smith, a Seattle attorney who represented the Colville Tribe and some of the other Northwest Indian tribes in court
     US government agencies who are defendants in the case and claimants from the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville and Nez Perce tribes can still appeal. They could take the case to the Supreme Court or ask for a rehearing with the Court of Appeals. In a statement, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, said "With this decision, we are concerned about the ability of Nagpra to protect Native American burials and remains, as intended by Congress."
     Kennewick Man has drawn scientific interest because it is one of the oldest, most complete skeletons found in North America, and may hold clues to the many mysteries about how humans first came to the Americas. He has distinctive bone structure dissimilar to modern Native Americans and is believed to have died in his early 40s, though not from the stone spear point found embedded in his hip.
     Also British researchers fear they may soon face calls to relinquish human remains held by British universities and museums. The Human Remains Working Group, commissioned by UK ministers, has recommended setting up a panel to investigate and adjudicate on ownership claims for material in British collections.

Sources: Associated Press, BBC News, CBS News, Seattle Post (5 February 2004)

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