Friday, July 15, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fate of Kennewick Man study unclear

Seattle Times staff reporter

As they wrapped up initial studies on Kennewick Man yesterday, scientists already were planning a follow-up session — and hoping a proposed change in federal law won't rob them of the chance to continue working with one of the oldest, best-preserved human skeletons in North America.

"I personally feel a great sense of urgency," said Cleone Hawkinson, president of Friends of America's Past, a group formed to help scientists in their nine-year legal battle to win the right to study the 9,300-year-old bones.

On July 28, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hear testimony on a proposal by Arizona Sen. John McCain to expand the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The federal law requires human remains be returned to Native American tribes that can demonstrate some kinship to them.

Shortly after two hydroplane fans stumbled across the skeleton on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996, four Northwest Indian tribes claimed the bones of what they call The Ancient One. Anthropologists sued, arguing it is impossible to establish lineage thousands of years in the past.

Federal courts sided with the scientists, who gathered at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture over the past 10 days to begin their analysis of the bones.

McCain wants to amend a section of the law that defines human remains as Native American if they are "of or relating to a tribe, a people or a culture that is indigenous" to the United States. He would add the words "or was" before the word indigenous.

Hawkinson says the change would make it impossible to study the earliest inhabitants of North America.

"American archaeology would come to a standstill," she said.

Tribes could even re-assert their claim to Kennewick Man, she said.

Rob Roy Smith, a Seattle attorney who represented the tribes in the fight over Kennewick Man, said Native Americans would still have to demonstrate a "cultural affiliation" with any human remains they claim. And the new wording would not apply retroactively to Kennewick Man.

"I think what you're hearing is nothing more than a scare tactic," he said.

The archaeologists and anthropologists who have been cataloging the bones will compile their results in a report in October, said team leader Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution.

Among other things, they will answer the question of whether the man was intentionally buried or simply covered with silt.

Plastic models of the skull and hip will be shipped to the Smithsonian, where casts will be taken to create additional models, said David Hunt, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian.

The plastic models, accurate to within less than a hundredth of an inch, were created from three-dimensional CT scans. The $20,000 process was paid for by Seattle scientist Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technical officer for Microsoft and an amateur paleontologist.

The next phase of studies, which should start sometime this year, will involve detailed analysis of the skeleton's hands, feet and musculature. Scientists also will compare skull measurements to populations around the world and through time to see who the skeleton most closely resembles.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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