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Debate rages over skeletal remains


Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Carbon dating has determined that the skeleton known as the Kennewick Man - found near the Columbia river in 1996 - is between 9,300 to 9,500 years old. The remains have sparked debate among scientists who want to study the skeleton and American Indians who want burial.

By Jeff Jensen
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
January 24, 2000
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The Arizona Daily Wildcat

Completed tests on an ancient human skeleton discovered in 1996 in the northwestern United States may shed new light on North America's first inhabitants.

Carbon dating has demonstrated that the skeleton, known as Kennewick Man because of the area in which it was found, is between 9,300 to 9,500 calendar years old.

Under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, any bones over 500 years old are considered to be Native American.

Yet, this law will not end a controversy that has been raging since the discovery of the bones near the Columbia River in 1996.

Numerous American Indian tribes have demanded that the remains be handed over so that they may be immediately buried. This latest date strengthens their case in court proceedings currently under way.

This law, which was created to prevent desecration of ancient bones, is inhibiting science according to some.

Joseph Powell, a biological anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, believes that the closest phenotypic connection of these remains is to populations in Polynesia and the Ainu people of Japan.

Anthropologists have called for DNA tests to solve this debate.

Alan Schneider, the anthropologist's lawyer, has stated that the age of the bones is not enough to classify the remains as Native American and that the government has erred in its interpretation of the law.

"The statute says a skeleton like this is Native American only if it can be shown to be related to a present-day tribe or culture," Schneider said.

Stephen Zegura, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Arizona, said that it is entirely possible that present-day Native Americans are not descended from the scattered ancient remains found in North and South America, such as Kennewick man.

"The early inhabitants of the Americas contained a great deal of phenotypic variation," Zegura said. "We have no assurance that these morphological remains have descendants in the Americas."

The U.S. Government has been given until March 24 by a federal court to decide if the scientists will be able to access the remains.

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