American Indian tribes say the skeleton known as Kennewick Man is an ancient descendant and should be buried with respect. Anthropologists say he should be studied first.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Magistrate John Jelderks was set to hear the latest round of arguments about what should happen to the 9,300-year-old skeleton found on the shore of the Columbia River five years ago.
After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would turn over the remains to a coalition of five Columbia Basin tribes for burial under federal law, eight scientists sued.
The anthropologists would like to further study the skeleton, regarded as one of the oldest and most complete ever found in North America, to learn more about the region's earliest inhabitants.
In September, Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior, ruled that Kennewick Man should be turned over to the tribes for burial.
At the time, Babbitt called his decision a "close call" and said it was based primarily on the tribes' oral histories and the area where Kennewick Man was found.
The merits of that decision, along with the scientists' claims, were expected to evaluated in the latest hearing.
The bones, bearing a stone spear point in the pelvis, were discovered in July 1996 in an eroding bank of the Columbia River at Kennewick, Wash., by a pair of college students who were wading in the shallows.
Citing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Corps awarded custody a few months later to five tribes: the Colville, Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Wanapum.
But the scientists challenged the Corps, saying the skeleton has too much to tell about how human beings populated North American to be returned to the Earth from which it came.
The scientists' attorneys argue that the government has not shown that the skeleton is Native American, which the Interior Department defines as anyone who was within the boundaries of the present United States in 1492. Using a date alone to determine whether remains are Native American is wrong, they say.
Kennewick Man could support recent theories that the continent's earliest arrivals came not by a land bridge between Russia and Alaska a long-held theory but by boat or some other route.
Scientists figure the bones, now stored in the Burke Museum in Seattle, are the remains of a hunter in his 40s with a prominent nose and heavily muscled legs whose physical characteristics more closely resemble people from Polynesia and southern Asia than local Indians.
Last year in a similar case, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decided not to award the 9,500-year-old Spirit Cave Man remains to local tribes.
© MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.