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Thursday, January 13, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kennewick Man's age confirmed: 9,300 and counting

Seattle Times science reporter

He really is Washington's oldest resident.

Recent tests confirm the skeleton of Kennewick Man is more than 9,300 years old, the U.S. Department of Interior announced this morning in Seattle.

A similar age was determined by an independent scientist soon after the remains were found in 1996 along the Columbia River in Kennewick, Benton County.

"We feel confident that we've got an ancient skeleton," said Francis McManamon, chief consulting archaeologist for the department, which is charged with determining whether there is a connection between the skeleton and area Native American tribes.

Because the remains are dated to well before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the findings allow the federal government to declare Kennewick Man a Native American under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Interior officials, who announced the findings at the University of Washington's Burke Museum, temporary home of the remains, must now try to determine whether the skeleton is affiliated with any local tribes that, in turn, might repatriate the bones.

Five Northwest Indian tribes have claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor. A Norse pagan group, Asatru Folk Assembly, also had claimed ancestral ties but has dropped out of the legal effort to claim the bones.

Tribal leaders today said they were pleased to hear the government formally declare that the remains are Native American.

"With that, they should respect what the Native Americans have to say and put more thought and feeling into repatriation and reburial, which is the wish of the tribes," said Rex Buck, a member of the Wanapum tribe.

Last year, the government released a report that said Kennewick Man appears to have the strongest similarities to people from Polynesia and southern Asia, not with Americans or Europeans. However, scientists cautioned that is it difficult to neatly link bones that old to specific modern populations.

Determining the origin of the bones is one element in the study of how North America was settled by humans. Several competing theories suggest humans migrated here 15,000 years ago, and less conservative estimates push the date back to 40,000 years or more.

Age doesn't determine ethnicity

The confirmed age of Kennewick Man doesn't surprise scientists who filed suit in U.S. District Court in Portland three years ago to keep federal officials from returning the remains to tribes before the bones are studied. But the announcement does move the case a step closer to a ruling on whether they get to do more scientific research, including DNA testing.

The eight researchers say the bones, some of the oldest found on the continent, can shed new light on how North America was settled and by whom.

"It's a hoop that we have to jump through, and a marker along the way," said Paula Barran, a Portland-based attorney for the anthropologists.

Also at issue, said plaintiff Robson Bonnichsen, is calling bones Native American simply because they are more than 500 years old.

"Age and age alone does not demonstrate that remains are of Native American origin," he said today, adding that the repatriation law is ambiguous about what Native American really is.

"There's a major interpretation," he said, "and the question is: Has the government gone way beyond what Congress intended?"

Date matches original assessment

The Interior Department last fall sent bone samples from the skeleton to three laboratories for radiocarbon testing, a process that dates organic material by determining how much of its radioactive carbon has decayed. The test of a foot bone - in which the department is most confident - gave researchers a "raw" radiocarbon age of 8,410 BP, or "before present," give or take 40 years.

A finger bone taken by anthropologist Jim Chatters shortly after the skeleton was found four years ago also produced a raw age of 8,410 years, plus or minus 60 years.

When the raw age is adjusted for changes in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the years, the age comes to between 9,320 and 9,510 years.

"Their raw date was very close to ours - eerily close," McManamon said.

Chatters said the recent dates give him a good measure of vindication. Federal researchers had doubted much of the work he did on the skeleton.

"This is fabulous," he said. "You can't ask for more. That's excellent. I'm quite pleased."

Another foot-bone sample taken by Interior scientists had a raw age of 8,130 years, with a 40-year margin of error. Samples from the front of a shin bone produced raw ages of 6,940 and 5,750 years, the latter with a 100-year margin of error.

Researchers told Interior officials that the tibia samples were more exposed to the younger carbon of surrounding sediments, producing the younger ages. The 1996 test was from a bone found among intact sediments in the skull, which might have protected it from contamination, researchers said.

The date disparities show the government did a poor job of choosing bone samples, said Bonnichsen, the lead plaintiff.

What happens next

Determining the skeleton's cultural affiliation and whether the bones will be submitted for DNA analysis comes next. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge John Jelderks has strongly suggested DNA testing.

The Interior Department has tapped four experts to look at possible cultural affiliations and could issue a report on that as early as February. If no affiliation can be found, the remains would remain unrepatriated and in the custody of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the Columbia River property on which they were found.

The remains then might be open to study by other scientists, McManamon said.

"It would potentially open the door," he said, "but the corps would have to make a decision of whether it's a good thing, whether it's in the public interest."

The Interior Department also has hired two molecular biologists to say what might be learned from DNA analysis of the bones. McManamon has their report, but the department is still weighing a decision, he said.

Jelderks has given Interior officials until March 24 to decide whether it will let scientists study the remains.

Eric Sorensen's phone: 206-464-8253. E-mail address: esorensen@seattletimes.com

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Kennewick Man's recent history.

Kennewick Man is more than 9,000 years old. But aside from a spear attack in his teens, only his recent years have been well documented. Here's a recap:

July 28, 1996 - College students trying to sneak into hydroplane races in Kennewick stumble on some partially buried bones. A preliminary test by anthropologist Jim Chatters shows the skeleton to be more than 9,000 years old, making it one of the oldest found on the continent. Sept. 5, 1996 - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, owner of the site where the remains were found, takes custody of Kennewick Man and talks of giving the bones to the Umatilla Tribe for reburial. Oct. 23, 1996 - U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge John Jelderks in Portland hears arguments in a lawsuit by eight anthropologists who want to continue study of the skeleton. February 1998 - Portions of both of Kennewick Man's upper leg bones are confirmed missing. September 1998 - Jelderks declares the University of Washington's Burke Museum "an appropriate repository" for the remains. Oct. 29, 1998 - Kennewick Man is transferred to the Burke. The move follows a 21-hour marathon inventory that confirms four of six pieces of femur were stolen. Feb. 18, 1999 - The Department of Interior, which implements the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and advises the Army Corps of Engineers, names a team of six scientists to conduct the initial, nondestructive research on whether Kennewick Man is Native American. July 27, 1999 - Interior scientists tell tribal groups that they think Kennewick Man lay relatively undisturbed until wave action ate away his resting place. A comparison of his bones with those of nearly 300 different populations worldwide found no matches. Sept. 7, 1999 - The Asatru Folk Assembly, a California-based religious group that worships ancient Norse gods, files suit asking that Kennewick Man's DNA be tested to see if they might claim him as one of their own. Sept. 8, 1999 - Interior scientists remove small portions of bones for Carbon-14 testing that might determine his age once and for all. Sept. 14, 1999 - Jelderks says the case is going too slowly and promises to speed it along. Sept. 21, 1999 - Jelderks gives the government until March 24 to tell anthropologists in the Kennewick Man lawsuit whether they will be allowed to study the ancient skeleton. If officials say nothing by then, Jelderks will conclude they are refusing to let the remains be studied by outsiders, clearing the way for a trial. His order, while not directly ordering DNA testing, said "any decision that did not include DNA analysis would probably be challenged as arbitrary and capricious." Oct. 15, 1999 - Interior Department posts on the World Wide Web research showing only a tentative link between Kennewick Man and various modern populations. Jan. 3, 2000 - Interior Department tells Jelderks in a monthly court filing that four researchers have been hired to determine Kennewick Man's cultural affiliation. Jan. 12, 2000 - The Asatru Folk Assembly says it is withdrawing from the legal dispute. Jan. 13, 2000 - Interior Department announces that radiocarbon tests show Kennewick Man is more than 9,300 years old.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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