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Sunday, February 21, 1999 Published at 01:14 GMT


Sci/Tech

Bid to clear up the Kennewick mystery

How did a European arrive in America 9,000 years ago?

By Toby Murcott of BBC Science

Tests to be carried out in the next few days may shed light on the mystery of the Kennewick man.

Three years ago an apparently European skeleton was found near Kennewick, Washington State, in the western United States - a discovery that sparked a bitter clash between archaeologists and native Americans.

The scientists want to examine the bones to look for clues to where the ancient traveller came from, but native Americans consider this disrespectful to one of their ancestors and want to re-bury the remains.

However the Kennewick Man skeleton prompts a particularly awkward question - what was an apparently European man doing in North America over 9,000 years ago?

Conventional wisdom has it that Vikings may have reached North America around 1,000 AD, but archaeologists hope the remains would tell them more about the spread of humans across the Americas.

Ancestor claim

But Native American people claimed the man as an ancestor and sought possession of his remains under a law drawn up to protect ancestral rights.

A group of scientists counter-sued, arguing, amongst other things, that Kennewick Man's European or caucasoid features meant he could not be a direct ancestor of modern native Americans.

The increasingly heated debate has continued ever since and now a district court has ordered the US Government to perform new tests to decide Kennewick Man's true ancestry once and for all.

But the court has forbidden the use of any DNA analysis or other destructive techniques to be used, and scientists argue that without these tests, it will be impossible to decide Kennewick Man's ancestry.

If this is the case then the government is prepared to allow invasive tests but only on approval from native American groups, who have so far refused to give consent.

It seems Kennewick Man is destined to remain the centre of this ongoing clash between science and indigenous cultures.



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