Scientists repackaging the ancient bones of Kennewick Man found one that apparently belonged to someone else, raising concerns that the bones’ scientific integrity could be compromised.
Curators cataloging the 9,200-year-old bones found “one bone that appeared to belong to another individual,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a report sent Monday to U.S. Magistrate Judge John Jelderks in Portland.
The bones are at the center of a lawsuit filed by archaeologists, who want to study them for possible Indo-European origin. The corps has barred their use for research, citing claims from American Indians that they are ancestral remains that should be buried.
Kennewick Man is believed to be the oldest and most complete prehistoric human skeleton found in the Pacific Northwest.
The bones, which are in a locked vault at Battelle’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, were being “rehoused” in new, padded boxes to prevent damage when the stray bone was discovered. Scientists and practitioners of an ancient religion had protested the way the bones originally were stored.
The origin of the stray bone was not clear, but it apparently was among the original set the agency received from Richland archaeologist James C. Chatters, corps spokesman Dutch Meier said Wednesday.
“All of the materials rehoused last week were of the original materials transferred by Dr. Chatters more than a year ago, including this apparently additional item,” Meier said.
Chatters did not immediately return calls to his Richland home and business.
In August, a group of Norse pagans called the Asatru blasted the corps for allowing American Indians to lace cedar fronds in Kennewick Man’s container during religious ceremonies.
The corps said the bones were wrapped in plastic, but the chance for moisture damage from the vegetation worried the Asatru.
In October, the corps sought advice from archaeology expert Madeleine Fang with the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California.
Last week, Fang and Michael K. Trimble, the corps’ chief of curation, led an effort to repackage and inventory the bones, Meier said.
During the inventory, corps workers found the stray bone, which was “co-located with the rest of the remains,” Meier said.
The lone bone puzzles Alan Schneider, a Portland lawyer representing scientists who want to study Kennewick Man.
“We don’t know where that bone came from,” he said. The skeletal remains were unearthed in the Columbia River at a Kennewick park in July 1996. Carbondating techniques placed their age at between 9,200 and 9,500 years old.
Five Northwest tribes want the bones returned to them for reburial under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The corps was close to granting that request when eight prominent scientists sued for the right to study the bones, saying the remains are too old to link to modern American Indians without more study.