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KNOXVILLE–A 9,300 year-old skeleton discovered in 1996 may shed new light on the early inhabitants of North America, a University of Tennessee anthropologist said Wednesday.

Dr. Richard Jantz said the most widely accepted theory holds that early Americans came here from North Asia by crossing the Bering Strait. But Jantz said the skeletal remains of what scientists are calling the Kennewick could show that early Americans might have migrated here from elsewhere.

When Kennewick man was uncovered near Washington-s Columbia River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that he was an ancestor of the present-day Umatilla tribe and should be returned to them for burial.

The Army Corps of Engineers — which controls the section of the Columbia River where Kennewick Man was found — decided that the skeleton falls under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). The legislation stipulates that Native American remains found on federal land must be returned to the appropriate tribe.

The most recent development in the case was the Jan. 13 release of radiocarbon tests confirming the age of the skeleton and establishing his Native American origins.

Federal officials still must rule by March on the connection between Kennewick Man and modern Native American tribes. Jantz said it is difficult to establish such a connection with a skeleton as old as Kennewick Man.

Initial studies show key skeletal structures of the Kennewick man remains that don’t match the bones of modern Native Americans, Jantz said. These findings suggest that he was of Caucasoid origin, part of a group that includes Asians as well as Europeans, he said.

“Northeast Asia has always been considered the source for Native American, but there is evidence that links Native Americans to Europe,” Jantz said. “The evidence shows that the early people — of which Kennewick was a part — descended from one or more early migrations and those people were superceded by people that looked more like Native Americans look today.”