Portland, Ore. — In a setback to scientists, the U.S. Interior Department decided Monday that Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America, should be given to five American Indian tribes that have claimed him as an ancestor.
The decision comes after four years of dispute between the tribes who want the remains buried immediately and researchers, who want to continue studying the 9,000-year-old bones that have already forced anthropologists to rethink theories about where the original Americans came from.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the remains were "culturally affiliated" with the five tribes because the bones were found in the Columbia River shallows near the tribes' aboriginal lands.
However, the fate of the bones may be decided in court.
Eight anthropologists, including one from the Smithsonian Institution, have filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in Portland for the right to study the bones. The remains are being kept at the Burke Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Seattle.
The lawsuit was put on hold pending the Interior Department research. Now that Babbitt has issued his determination, the scientists say they will ask the judge to let the lawsuit go forward.
Found in 1996, Kennewick Man is one of the most complete ancient skeletons found in North America. Radiocarbon-dating of the 380 bones and skeletal fragments place their age at between 9,320 and 9,510 years old.
The bones were found on federal land managed by the county government in Kennewick, Wash., and the Interior Department agreed to determine what should happen to them under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
Professors who studied the bones for the Interior Department have said Kennewick Man appears to be most strongly connected to the people of Polynesia and southern Asia. The find helped force researchers to consider the possibility that the continent's earliest arrivals came not by a land bridge between Russia and Alaska a long-held theory but by boat or some other route.