Oct. 30, 1996 -- A University of Wyoming forensic scientist has joined a court action to keep a skeleton discovered in Washington state last July, believed to be more than 9,300 years old, from being reburied by the Umatilla tribe and barred from further study.
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, tribes have a right to claim such skeletons in the interest of preserving religious and cultural traditions.
George Gill, UW professor and specialist in forensic anthropology, says the skeleton, known as "Kennewick Man," is believed to have a caucasoid bone structure and is not an ancestor of the tribe claiming it. He and four other physical anthropologists, who specialize in the biology of early peoples, and three archaeologists, who specialize in prehistory, want to study the skeleton before its reburial.
They filed an injunction in federal court to stop the Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the land on which the skeleton was found, from delivering it to the Umatilla tribe for reburial. On Oct. 25, a U.S. District magistrate declined their request for a temporary restraining order and the skeleton will stay in a vault.
Soon after the skeleton's discovery, Gill says he was contacted by Douglas Owsley, a former student of his who is the head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution.
"Doug was concerned that a misinterpretation of the law was allowing the tribe to claim a valuable skeleton for immediate reburial without any scientific analysis," Gill says. "He asked me to join him and other scientists who have the expertise to interpret an ancient skeleton. This is an incredible find because it is well preserved and one of only a few recovered from 8-12,000 years ago, historically called the Paleoindian period."
Gill says there are many unanswered questions in human evolution and population change in North America. Without adequate study of ancient remains, they remain a mystery.
"Because this skeleton is obviously prehistoric, we think it important to get some things in this law established now," he says. "We've always returned remains to tribes whenever anyone had a claim and particularly when we had evidence it belonged to a certain tribe. But remains that go back nearly 10,000 years and show no particularly close kinship to anybody existing today are a resource for all humanity."
Gill says his primary research interest is "modern peoples and their immediate ancestors." He has studied 7,500 year-old remains recovered from the north central Plains and 5,000 year-old remains from Nebraska.
"Examining these earliest remains shows me that some were Caucasian," he says. "Many people assume that the earliest people in North America were the same in physical appearance as the later Americans at the time of European contact. I believe some were not."
Gill says archaeologists can prove the existence of people in North America as far back as 12,000 years ago. His research article on "Human Skeletal Remains on the Northwestern Plains," published in the 1991 edition of the book "Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains," indicates that the region originally was inhabited by individuals with caucasoid traits. This may explain the bone structure of Kennewick Man.
"Some specimens show this to a surprising degree," he says. "The prominent noses and chins and the high vaulted skulls of some northwestern plains archaic specimens do stand out in contrast to the traits of the late prehistoric and historic series."
Gill hopes that the prospect of a full hearing in court, will cause everyone to "take a strong look at the law" and result in a compromise.
"It seems odd to me that the most valuable skeleton from prehistory ever found on this continent would be the least studied," he says. "When a skeleton is found in Wyoming, I have to determine whether it is a homicide or recent death, calculate if historic or prehistoric, and decide to which tribe it should be repatriated, if at all. That takes a thorough analysis and we usually have months or years for study. I think it would be tragic not to give this significant skeleton a fraction of the attention we do in a routine case investigation."