Kennewick Man, one of the oldest and best-preserved skeletons ever found in North America, is related to modern Native American tribes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday, possibly closing a debate that lasted 20 years.
The corps, which owns and has custody of the remains, said the 8,500-year-old bones are now covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, opening the process to return Kennewick Man to tribes for Native American burial.
The decision was based upon review and analysis of new information, in particular a DNA study and skeletal analyses published last year in the journal Nature.
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Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Stanford University School of Medicine used the latest in DNA isolation and sequencing techniques to analyze the genetic material in a bone sample.
They concluded that, although it is impossible to assign Kennewick Man to a particular tribe, he is closely related to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington.
The results challenged a 2014 study that assumed, based on anatomical data, that Kennewick Man was more related to indigenous Japanese or Polynesian peoples than to Native Americans.
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Earlier this month scientists from the University of Chicago, independently validated the genetic study published in Nature.
"We concur with the findings of the original paper that the sample is genetically closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide," John Novembre, David Witonsky, and Anna Di Rienzo of Chicago University wrote.
The validated DNA and skeletal analyses prompted Army Brig. Gen. Scott Spellmon, commander of the corps' Northwestern Division to put to an end a decade-long debate over the skeleton's origins.
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"I find that there is substantial evidence to determine that Kennewick Man is related to modern Native Americans from the United States," Spellmon ruled.
The skeletal remains were discovered in 1996 along the shores of the Columbia River in Washington state. The finding prompted a legal, spiritual and scientific dispute between scientists, who wanted to study the bones, and Native Americans, who claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor and called him the Ancient One.
The court battle began with a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by eight scientists seeking access to study the bones.
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In February 2004, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the anthropologists, concluding that "a significant relationship of the tribal claimants with Kennewick Man" could not be proved.
Reburial requests were halted to allow further investigation into the skeleton's origins.
Legally the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as they were found on land under its custody, the remains of Kennewick Man are locked away at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where they were deposited in 1998.
"At present, there has been no decision to transfer the remains," Spellmon said.
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He added the corps will now review custody possibilities. It won't be an easy task to determine which of the five tribes that in the past declared a connection to the Ancient One - the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Wanapum - has the strongest claim.
To expedite the burial, it is expected the tribes will collaborate and send a joint request.
"Obviously we are hearing an acknowledgment from the Corps of what we have been saying for 20 years," JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, told the Seattle Times.
"Now we want to collectively do what is right, and bring our relative back for reburial," he added.