A cardboard box apparently containing 9,300-year-old human bones was handed over to the FBI on Monday and may soon be reunited with the rest of the controversial Kennewick Man skeleton, officials said.
The box was found in an evidence vault in the Benton County Sheriff's office last week and was examined by a government scientist this weekend.
"I'm fairly certain the bones are from Kennewick Man," county coroner Floyd Johnson said. Johnson was one of the first people to examine the skeleton when it was found along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996.
The majority of the skeleton is housed in the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle and is the center of a custody battle that pits a coalition of Northwest Indian tribes against a group of anthropologists.
Bones Found in Sheriff’s Office
Indians from five Northwest tribes consider the skeleton a distant relative who should be reburied, while the anthropologists see Kennewick Man as a rare chance to study migration into North America after the end of the Ice Age.
The fate of the skeleton awaits a decision by a federal judge in Portland, who is considering arguments made last week at a two-day U.S. District Court hearing. The decision is due in a few weeks.
Alan Schneider, a lawyer for the anthropologists, was skeptical that the newly discovered bones were indeed part of the original find.
"This case has more wrinkles than a prune," he said. "Given the government's track record, we will wait until our experts make a determination."
Part of the skeleton was discovered to be missing in 1998, including several fragments from Kennewick Man's thigh bones. The FBI launched an investigation but could not find the missing bones.
The missing cardboard box was found in the Benton County Sheriff's office last week by detectives clearing out an evidence vault in preparation for a move, Sheriff Larry Taylor said.
Johnson said the loss was due to a clerical mix-up and an FBI agent in Seattle added that there was apparently "nothing sinister" regarding the missing box.
How the bones were overlooked for so long was not explained, but county officials said the problem could be a result of an improper tagging of evidence. The box of bones found last week was marked "Columbia Park" with no reference to the Kennewick Man case.
When the bones were originally discovered they were gathered up by Johnson and an assistant.
Leg Bones Important to Scientists
Seattle FBI agent Robbie Burroughs said the bones would now be handled "as any evidence is treated." She said they would probably be sent from the Richland FBI office to Seattle soon.
Next to the skull, the leg bones are considered by scientists to be some of the most important parts of a skeleton because they contain information helpful to assess stature, size, age and population affiliation.
Until recently, most scientists thought that North America began to be populated after the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago when Asian mammoth hunters walked from Siberia across a northern land bridge.
But the theory has been shaken by evidence of late Ice Age human settlements on California's channel islands and in Chile, evidence that suggests America's first humans traveled by boat, arriving much sooner than previously thought.