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9 December 2007
Debate on Kennewick Man still rages on

Scientists hoping to study the ancient skeleton known as Kennewick Man are protesting efforts on two fronts that they say could block them from examining one of the oldest and most complete set of bones ever found in North America. For a third time in four years, the scientists are opposing a bill in the U.S. Senate that would allow federally recognized American Indian tribes to claim ancient remains even if they cannot prove a link to a current tribe. They also are contesting draft regulations issued by the Bush administration on the disposal of culturally unaffiliated remains.
     If adopted, the proposed changes could "result in a world heritage disaster of unprecedented proportions" and "rob our descendants of the unique insights concerning the shared heritage of all people that physical anthropological studies of culturally unidentifiable human remains can provide," the American Association of Physical Anthropologists said in a statement. Supporters of the legislation call such worries overblown. They say the changes are intended to clarify the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to ensure that federally recognized tribes can safeguard the graves of their ancestors.  Neither the Senate bill nor the draft regulations would affect the 9,300-year-old bones known as Kennewick Man, they said.
     The skeleton was discovered in 1996 along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in the Northwestern United States and has been the focus of a bitter fight ever since. A federal appeals court ruled in 2004 that scientists can study the ancient bones, and teams of anthropologists and other analysts have begun poring over more than 300 bones and bone fragments at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington, where the remains are housed.
     A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the Senate bill would clarify what process should be followed for future discoveries of ancient remains. Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary of the Interior, called the proposed change too broad and said it would loosen the Indian graves law to include remains that might not be connected to a tribe. Rob Smith, a Seattle lawyer who represented a group of Northwest tribes in the Kennewick Man case, said the Senate bill would not "allow Indian tribes to make wild claims to any newly discovered remains," as opponents contend. Tribes still would have to prove a cultural connection with the remains, he said.

Sources: Associated Press, International Herald Tribune (30 November 2007)

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