KNOXVILLE — A U.S. Court of Appeals ruling on the fate of an ancient skeleton could have far-reaching implications for anthropologists, a University of Tennessee professor said.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled last week that scientists should be allowed to study -Kennewick Man,- a 9,000 year-old skeleton found near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996. The skeleton has been sequestered in a Seattle museum while American Indian tribes, government agencies and scientists conducted a series of lengthy court battles.
Dr. Richard Jantz, one of eight anthropologists who sued the federal government over access to Kennewick Man, said the recent ruling clarifies the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, known as NAGPRA.
-This decision says that Kennewick Man doesn-t fall under NAGPRA and is not claimable by any current Native American tribe,- Jantz said.
The appellate court ruled that NAGPRA was intended to return skeletal remains of American Indians to living members of their tribes. The link between Kennewick Man and an existing tribe was not demonstrated, the ruling said.
-In the past, any skeleton which pre-dated the arrival of Columbus in America was automatically considered to be Native American. Now that affiliation has to be demonstrated,- Jantz said. -There are literally thousands of skeletons in museums around America that would not now be considered Native American under the court-s findings.-
A reconstruction of Kennewick Man-s skull made before further study of the skeleton was halted raised controversy. The facial features bore no resemblance to modern Native Americans, causing speculation about the earliest humans to occupy North America.
Jantz, whose research specialty is morphology, or skull measurement, has studied a number of ancient skeletons.
-Part of the value of Kennewick Man is that he will join the sample of 9,000 to 10,000 year old skeletons we have. One skeleton isn-t really that big a deal, but there are other skeletons that age, and they also don-t look like modern Native Americans. The larger the number of skeletons we have, the more we can say about people of that time.-
As to when he and the other anthropologists will begin their study of Kennewick Man, Jantz said the timetable is uncertain.
-The tribes and the government could ask for a re-hearing,- he said. -They could also appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Our attorney says nothing is going to happen right away. It could be another two years.-
But despite another possible delay, Jantz said he is encouraged, because last week-s ruling establishes a clear precedent for future interpretation of NAGPRA.
-It-s unlikely that the Kennewick episode would be repeated on something found in the future,- he said.