The Interior Department decided Monday that the remains should be given to five American Indian tribes for reburial, disappointing scientists who had hoped to continue studying the bones.
"We knew in our heart that this one is an ancestor, but we are saddened that it took the federal government so long to make this determination," said Armand Minthorn of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
The decision was the reverse of the one following a similar debate over the fate of Spirit Cave Man, skeletal remains discovered 60 years ago in Spirit Cave in western Nevada.
Spirit Cave Man and Kennewick Man have been the subject of battles between scientists who want to study them and the American Indian tribes who claim them as ancestors.
In the Spirit Cave Man case, the Bureau of Land Management decided the ancient mummy, tightly wrapped in tulle mats and a fur robe, was not affiliated with any contemporary tribe or group.
But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the 9,000-year-old bones of Kennewick Man were "culturally affiliated" with the five tribes because the bones were found in the Columbia River shallows near the tribes' aboriginal lands.
"Why they did it, I don't know," said Paula Barran, co-counsel for eight scientists who have sued for the right to study the bones. "It's so astonishing, particularly given the government's decision in the case of the Spirit Cave mummy, which was about the same age, and they concluded it could never be culturally affiliated even though they had textiles in that case and this is just bones."
Frank McManaman, Interior chief archaeologist, said it was that lack of artifacts that made it impossible to dispute the tribes' claims.
Found in 1996, the 380 bones and skeletal fragments of Kennewick Man were determined to be between 9,320 and 9,510 years old. Pieces of the skeleton were sent to three laboratories, but none was able to extract DNA for analysis.
The bones were found on federal land managed by the county government in Kennewick, Wash., and the Interior Department agreed to determine what should happen to them under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
Professors who studied the bones for the Interior Department have said Kennewick Man appears to be most strongly connected to the peoples of Polynesia and southern Asia.
The find helped force researchers to consider the possibility 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.
The Army Corps of Engineers was prepared to turn the bones over to five tribes for immediate reburial when the scientists filed their lawsuit. The tribes said study of Kennewick Man would violate thir religious traditions.
The tribes on reservations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, the Colville Confederated Tribes, the Wanapum Band, the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe.
Babbitt said Monday he was persuaded by the geographic data and oral histories of the tribes that claim Kennewick Man as an ancestor, although, he said, "ambiguities in the data made this a close call."
However, the fate of the bones may be decided in court.
Eight anthropologists, including one from the Smithsonian Institution, have filed suit in federal court in Portland for the right to study the bones. The remains are being kept at the Burke Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Seattle.
The lawsuit was put on hold pending the Interior Department research. Now that Babbitt has issued his determination, the scientists say they will ask the judge to let the lawsuit go forward.
"Every decision they have made in the four years since the litigation was filed has been consistent with having a closed mind from the start," Barran said.
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