Portland, Ore. — A federal judge Friday ordered the U.S. government to let scientists study the bones of Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton that could offer rare clues to how the first people arrived in America.
The 9,300-year-old bones have been the center of an intense legal battle between scientists, who want to study the remains, and the federal government, which had ruled the bones belong to Northwest tribes who claim the remains as an ancient tribal member.
"Allowing study is fully consistent with applicable statutes and regulations, which are clearly intended to make archaeological information available to the public through scientific research," wrote U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks.
Jelderks had repeatedly criticized the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department for how they handled the dispute. The judge had said he felt the corps made a hasty decision to recognize a tribal claim to the bones.
He also has criticized the government for delaying tests on the age of the bones and delaying its response to questions about determining cultural affiliation with modern tribes.
Scientists want to study the skeleton to see if it represents some unknown source of migration to North America apart from the traditional theory of people walking from Asia across a land bridge to North America.
Five tribes along the Columbia River are seeking possession of the bones to bury them.
The bones were found in July 1996 along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. They are being stored at the University of Washington's Burke Museum until the case is resolved.
Scientists argued that former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt overstepped his authority by ruling the skeleton was culturally affiliated with Northwest tribes. Babbitt argued that the tribes had an oral tradition of history in the general area where the bones were found.
Babbitt was acting under a federal law intended to prevent theft and illegal trafficking of American Indian artifacts, protect tribal burial sites and restore the remains of ancestors to the tribes.
The law says that federal agencies or museums shall return remains or associated objects to tribes that request them and can show a direct link to the artifacts.
The scientists, however, argued that no group can establish a direct link that extends 9,000 years.
The scientists said it was extremely rare to find a nearly intact skeleton so old. Initial analysis also indicated it differed from modern American tribes, prompting speculation about whether it supported theories such as several waves of migration from different areas.