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Kennewick Man
Experts collaborated to create a bust showing how Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One, may have looked. (Sculpted bust by StudioEIS; forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning; photograph by Brittany Tatchell / Smithsonian)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just ruled that an 8,500-year-old set of skeletal remains known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One belonged to a Native American tribe, based on DNA tests that came out nearly a year ago.

It took that long for experts to weigh the genetic evidence, plus other anatomical evidence that has been the focus of a 20-year-long legal tug of war. Earlier this month, a trio of scientists from the University of Chicago issued a technical report declaring that the DNA findings published last June in Nature were sound.

The remains were found on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996. Five Pacific Northwest tribes pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the bones, to hand them over in accordance with a federal law on the repatriation of remains. However, a group of scientists sued to block the handover, arguing that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe.

Federal judges sided with the scientists, and as a result, the corps retained custody of the skeleton and made it available for study. Now that the studies are finished, the 380 bones and bone fragments are locked away in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Some scientists suggested that Kennewick Man might have been a visitor from the Far North, Siberia or perhaps someplace even more exotic. But when geneticists compared DNA from a hand bone with a wide range of samples, they found that the closest match came from members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

The report that was issued this month affirmed those results, as well as other evidence supporting the view that the Ancient One was a Native American. That led Army Brig. Gen. Scott Spellmon, commander of the corps’ Northwestern Division, to rule on Tuesday that the remains are “subject to the processes and procedures outlined in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.”

Spellmon stressed that there has not yet been a decision to transfer the remains. The next step will be to “review the priority of custody … including cultural affiliation,” he said. There’s also a chance that the handover will be challenged in federal court, just as it was 20 years ago.

Coincidentally, legislation known as the “Bring the Ancient One Home Act” is making its way through Congress. The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., while the House version is sponsored by Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash.

It’s not yet clear which of the five tribes seeking the Ancient One’s return – the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Wanapum – has the strongest claim on the remains. In the past, the tribes have worked together on the issue, and if one of the tribes wins custody, the others are likely to cooperate on the burial arrangements.

Tribal leaders have said the burial site would be kept secret to head off the possibility of future desecration.

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