Gnawing on the bones

Now the scientists turn intransigent in the battle over Kennewick man.

For nearly two years now, the human remains popularly known as "Kennewick man" have been locked in a storeroom at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, while the US government contended in court that federal law required the bones to be turned over to Native Americans for reburial without further scientific study.

Finally, on July 1, under pressure from an exasperated federal judge, the government backed down, offering a plan for further study of the bones that took into consideration Native American concerns about reverent treatment of ancestral remains while granting access to them for qualified scientists.

It looked for a few weeks as if the saga of K-Man, discovered by partying teenagers in the Columbia River shallows during the August 1996 Tri-Cities hydro races, was winding down to a compromise acceptable to all parties. But that hope was shattered two weeks ago by another filing in Judge John Jeldercks' Portland court—and this time it wasn't "Native American religious fundamentalists" but scientific absolutists who were digging in their heels.

The would-be compromise plan submitted to the court July 1 was the work of National Park Service archaeologist Frank McManamon, who for years has crafted agreements between scientists and Native Americans for appropriate handling of human remains and artifacts found on federal lands under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by Congress in 1990.

On the face of it, McManamon's plan seemed to offer the eight eminent scientists suing the government for access to the bones just about everything they could have hoped for. It allowed for moving the remains to the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus, where they could be properly cared for, examined, measured, photographed, X-rayed, CAT-scanned—everything short of so-called "destructive testing" such as radiocarbon dating and DNA-polymerization, which irreversibly destroy bone tissue—in an attempt to establish the closest living relatives of the 9,200-year-old remains.

Since everything so far known about the bones suggests that K-Man is at most only distantly related to any Native American tribe currently resident in the Northwest (the shape of his skull and teeth and his general physical appearance more resemble certain Siberian and North Japanese peoples of today), it would seem that the scientists have everything to gain and little to lose from agreeing to the compromise. If the initial examination doesn't settle the affiliation question, McManamon's plan leaves open what procedures should be taken next, with destructive DNA and radiocarbon tests very much a possibility. (The Colville tribe, one of five Eastern Washington groups keeping an eye on developments, has already said it wants DNA testing, and the sooner the better.)

In their July 15 filing, the scientists' attorneys completely rejected any compromise, saying that the McManamon plan was "vague," "incomplete," politically motivated, and just plain bad science. But their biggest problem seemed to be with the plan's failure to put the eight scientific plaintiffs squarely in control of the remains. (None, as it happens, are on the staff of the Burke, though one of America's leading authorities on early man, Donald Grayson, is.)

After the mindless intransigence of the US Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Justice during the past 21 months, the response from Bruce Babbitt's Interior Department (which oversees the Park Service) was refreshingly cool and reasonable. McManamon freely granted that among the plaintiffs in Portland were some world-class experts in the field, including two highly placed scientists at the Smithsonian Institution.

But a lot of other scientists are just as qualified. And given that the scientists have taken such an extreme and unyielding position, it might be more appropriate to place further study of the remains in the hands of qualified but uninvolved parties "to avoid," in the carefully chosen words of an Interior Department spokesperson, "the appearance of having a preset bias about the outcome."

Among some of those uninvolved parties, the intransigence of the scientists pressing the lawsuit is beginning to raise some eyebrows—particularly considering their frantic assertions that the bones may be suffering irreversible damage in their current quarters. People are starting to question where the money to support the lawsuit is coming from, too: The feds admit that the suit has cost them about a half a million dollars to date, and the scientists' side can hardly have spent less than a quarter of a million, even if, as they claim, their attorneys are working pretty much pro bono. Wherever the cash is coming from, is it really cost-effective to continue to push in court for total victory when all along the presiding judge has insisted that the parties find a mutually satisfactory compromise?

It's possible that, like it or not, the scientists may have to settle for what they've been offered. Last Wednesday, a week after the scientists' filing, the feds offered their response: an appeal for reason, compromise, and quick decision. Jeldercks has so far held his fire, but next week he may well give the government what it asks for. In May, he warned both parties that if they couldn't compromise, he would be forced to compromise for them.

 
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