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22 July 2004
New wrangle over Kennewick bones

The legal battle over the ancient bones of Kennewick Man has been won by the scientists, but they now face a new wrangle over access to the remains.
     The 9,300-year-old skeleton is among the most complete specimens of its period known from the Americas. Four Native American tribes that sought to re-bury the bones have announced they will not be taking their fight to the US Supreme Court. But they still regard the skeleton as an ancestor and call it "ancient one".
     The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama and Colville tribes filed a claim to the skeleton shortly after it was unearthed on 31 July, 1996, on a wide bank of the Columbia river at Kennewick in Washington State (USA). However, they were quickly challenged by scientists who said the skeleton could provide valuable information about the early settling of the Americas.
     In February, the coalition of tribes lost their legal fight in the federal courts to scientists who want to study the remains. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was impossible to establish a relationship between the Indian tribes and "Kennewick Man". An attempt to have the decision reviewed by a panel of judges was also rejected.
     Neither the tribes nor the US Justice Department filed an appeal to America's highest court. However, legal representatives for the scientists are still locked in discussions with the US Justice Department over what the researchers are allowed to do with the bones, as the government has said that it would not permit any chemical or invasive testing on the bones. This would scupper any further attempts to obtain DNA samples from Kennewick Man.
     The discussions are also likely to cover the question of how access to the remains is controlled. "They're saying you have to restrict your studies and only a couple of people can go in and look at it and that sort of thing," said Professor Robson Bonnichsen, one of the lead scientists.
     The plaintiffs are also concerned by suggestions the bones may have deteriorated in the eight years since they was pulled from the sediment. "The government has now come up with all kinds of concerns - that the skeleton is in such poor condition. The condition's changed under their watch because everyone said it was in great condition when it came in," explained Professor Bonnichsen.
     The bones of Kennewick Man are currently held at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Source: BBC News (21 July 2004)

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