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2 February 2008
Ancient bones found at University of California

Locked away in a museum safe near Escondido (California, USA) are perhaps the oldest skeletal remains found in the Western Hemisphere. More than 30 years after the relics were unearthed during a classroom archaeological dig at UC San Diego, the county's Kumeyaay tribes are fighting to reclaim the bones that anthropologists estimate are nearly 10,000 years old.
     "We think it's the oldest multiple burial in the New World," said UCLA anthropology professor Gail Kennedy, who participated in the 1976 dig with a University of California San Diego professor. "We don't know anything about these people other than they lived on the coast and they were fishermen." The remains, which a UC consultant says have been dated between 9,590 and 9,920 years old, make them older than Kennewick Man skeletal remains found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996. That collection, which is at the center of a years-long legal battle between American Indian tribes and archaeologists dates back 9,300 years, scientists say.
     The Kumeyaay don't care how old the remains are. They simply want to put what they say are their ancestors to rest. According to members of the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, which was created in 1998, about 29 remains were excavated in 1976 near University House, a home for the UCSD chancellor. Only three, in the safe near Escondido, are accounted for. "We would like to bury those remains," said Steve Banegas, chairman of the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee. "We no longer want them disrespected."
     In 1976, anthropologists took a class to University House to participate in a dig, knowing skeletons had been dug up from the area in the past. They were amazed at what they found, Kennedy said. A young man and an older woman were buried together. He was placed at her feet. Two of his fingers were severed and put in his mouth. Both of their skulls were cracked. The condition of the third skeleton was not as good. Kennedy said she took the remains to UCLA, where she examined them for a year before giving them back to UCSD. Many details of where the bones have been for the past 32 years are missing. In the past decade, they were sent to Balboa Park's Museum of Man before going to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from 2000 to 2007. The frequent moves have compromised the integrity of the remains, said Bernice Paipa, a delegate for the La Posta Band of Mission Indians.
     The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires museums and federal agencies to return remains and artifacts to federally recognized tribes that request them. A UCSD committee was created to determine whether the remains are Kumeyaay. Margaret Schoeninger, a UCSD anthropology professor, is in charge of the group. Bones can't be returned until Schoeninger's group tells a systemwide university repatriation committee whether it believes the remains are Kumeyaay. To do that, the university committee needs to meet certain standards of proof. The Kumeyaay say they can prove their link to the remains but are insulted they are even being asked. The tribes gave a presentation outlining their centuries-long ties to the area, including maps and historic songs and poems referring to the La Jolla area. Schoeninger said she hopes to have a committee recommendation by March. "I can understand why they're frustrated," Schoeninger said. "They just want their remains back."

Source: Union Tribune (27 January 2008)

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