Another Kennewick Man situation

In a story that reminds me of the decade long struggle over studying or burying the skeleton of the 9,000 year old Kennewick Man case, there is a current controversy over two ancient skeletons that were uncovered in 1976 during construction at the home of a University of California chancello.

Scientists are claiming that these skeletons may be among the most valuable for genetic analysis in the continental United States. The bones are dated between 9,000 and 9,600 years old and are exceptionally well preserved and could potentially produce the oldest complete human genome of the continent.

The UC scientists, however, are pitted against their own administration. Five scientists wrote a letter published May 20 that they are not being allowed to study the skeletons, even though they were discovered on property owned by UC San Diego. The scientists fear university administrators will give the bones to powerful local American Indian governments who might permanently block study.

“To give them away without study, would be like throwing the genetic crown jewels of the peopling of the Americas in the ocean,” said Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

A few studies were done years ago on the skeletons before UC withdrew access to them, but recent technological advances would allow scientists to do much more, including a digital skull calibration and possibly a full genome sequence.

One of the previous analyses done years ago showed the bones have connective tissue and amino acids that are used in cell function. This means it is very likely ancient DNA can be extracted. And two skeletons buried together offers a rare opportunity to compare their genomes to see if they were related.

UC officials are apparently seeking to provide the skeletons to the Kumeyaay Nation near San Diego under a complex process guided by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). But critical scientists say NAGPRA requirements aren’t being followed properly, setting the stage for a potential legal battle over the bones.

Steve Benegas, the repatriation spokesman for the Kumeyaay Nation’s 12 tribes, said they are entitled to the bones and to decide about future analysis. Some Native Americans believe scientific research amounts to desecration of remains, and Benegas said he personally is against studies.

UC officials are apparently seeking to provide the skeletons to the Kumeyaay Nation near San Diego under a complex process guided by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). But critical scientists say NAGPRA requirements aren’t being followed properly, setting the stage for a potential legal battle over the bones.

Steve Benegas, the repatriation spokesman for the Kumeyaay Nation’s 12 tribes, said they are entitled to the bones and to decide about future analysis. Some Native Americans believe scientific research amounts to desecration of remains, and Benegas said he personally is against studies.

Scientists say UC is overlooking two key points. First, there has been no official determination the bones are actually from ancestors of modern Native Americans. Though many tribes believe their history goes further back, scientists can only confidently trace the ancestry of Native Americans to about 7,000 years ago.

Second, scientific evidence shows skeletons around this age are not always related to those who now live near burial sites. For example, last year Willerslev sequenced the genome of a 5,000-year-old man in Greenland and found he was descended from Siberian ancestors, not today’s Greenland tribes.

Since the NAGPRA rules were first issued in 1990, thousands of bones have been repatriated, almost all of which were shown to be culturally affiliated to the tribes that received them. But last year, federal officials issued new NAGPRA rules that make it easier to return bones and funerary objects that are not culturally affiliated to tribes.

This blog entry was based on the news report from wired.com. Read more.

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