Court judgement opens door for study of ancient skeleton

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In a major victory for US archaeologists and anthropologists, a court has ruled that they can go ahead and examine Kennewick Man, a 9,200-year-old skeleton found six years ago in a river-bed in Washington state .

A US district-court judge in Portland, Oregon, ruled on 30 August that the Department of the Interior had been unjustified in its September 2000 decision to hand the skeleton to five Native American tribes, who did not want any research to be done on it.

A group of scientists first filed a lawsuit in 1996 to demand the right to study the skeleton, which could provide significant information about early human migration in the Americas. One of them, Robson Bonnichsen, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University in College Station, said: “The decision is terrific, it will benefit everyone.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said that the government wouldn't comment until it had reviewed the decision. But spokesmen for the Native American tribes expressed disappointment, saying that the court had prevented them from exercising their rights under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The ruling is likely to have implications for the study of early human migration in the United States as it will make it harder for Native Americans to use the act to prevent the study of other specimens. One example is a skull unearthed in 1999 in a bog near Houston, Texas. Radio-carbon tests suggest that it is about 11,000 years old. Such specimens are now more likely to be fully studied, although Native American tribes will still be able to claim the remains and rebury them afterwards.

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Dalton, R. Court judgement opens door for study of ancient skeleton. Nature 419, 5 (2002) doi:10.1038/419005a

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