Y A K I M A, Wash., Sept. 9, 2001 -- Two tiny samples have been taken from the collection of bones known as Kennewick Man — material that will be used for radiocarbon dating to determine his age.
Initial tests run three years ago indicated the bones were more than 9,000 years old.
Researchers on Wednesday extracted two 10-gram samples, about one-third of an ounce each, from the bones, which are stored at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
The samples will be hand-carried to laboratories in Miami, Fla., Tucson, Ariz., and Riverside, Calif., for accelerator mass spectrometry testing.
Objections on Cultural Grounds
Five Northwest Indian tribes, who have claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor, object to the tests as a desecration.
“We recognize and sincerely regret that destruction of any amount of bone is offensive to some religious and traditional tribal beliefs,” said Francis McManamon, chief archaeologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is overseeing the process.
“However, to reasonably answer the question of whether Kennewick Man is Native American for the purposes of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), and to undertake any further studies if he is, it is vitally important to know whether these bones are 80 years old or 800 years old or 8,000 years old.”
The Interior Department is responsible for determining if the remains will be classified as Native American under federal law, which typically is the case if the bones are more than 500 years old.
Results are expected to be announced in November.
After Age, Affiliation
Once the age of Kennewick Man is established with certainty, the Interior Department will likely undertake a lengthy study to see if the bones can be affiliated with any existing Indian tribes.
The outcome could determine who gets custody of the bones, a matter in dispute in federal court. A group of scientists has sued for the right to study the bones, and a California pagan group also claims Kennewick Man as a possible ancestor.
“The chronological date of these remains is fundamental to all future actions the department will take,” McManamon said.
Kennewick Man is believed to be one of the oldest and most complete skeletons found in North America. The 380 bones stunned anthropologists around the world when it was observed that Kennewick Man’s skull structure and features were different from modern-day American Indians.
Clues to Migration Within?
Scientists say the bones could provide clues about the migration of humans to the North American continent.
A few weeks after the bones were found, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had custody of the remains, made plans to give them to the tribes for burial.
Eight prominent anthropologists sued in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., for the chance to examine the bones. Lawyers for the anthropologists have accused the government of dragging its feet in the three-year-old case, and a hearing on that complaint was scheduled for Tuesday.
Additionally, a 500-member Old Norse religious group, the Asatru Folk Assembly, has sued for custody of the bones, saying Kennewick Man could be a European ancestor.
The Asatru this week filed a new motion in the case, seeking DNA testing of the bones, which the Interior Department has refused to do.
State-of-the-art genetic testing would be the best way to determine Kennewick Man’s origins, said Stephen A. McNallen, leader of the Asatru group, based in Nevada City, Calif.
“DNA testing is the only fair and objective way to meet the needs of all parties in the case,” McNallen said.