Native American tribes in Washington are set to receive the ancient remains of the "Kennwick Man" after President Barack Obama signed a bill on Monday, Dec. 19, authorizing its return and eventual reburial.
The almost 9,000-year-old skeleton was discovered by two teenagers on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington in 1996. Subsequent radiocarbon tests revealed that the remains belonged to a prehistoric Paleoamerican man.
The Kennewick Man later became the subject of controversy after various American Indian tribes came forward to demand that the remains be returned to them for reburial. Genetic evidence discovered in 2015 confirmed that the ancient skeleton is indeed related to Native Americans.
The recently signed bill orders the transfer of the Kennewick Man from the custody of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Washington State Department of Archaeology within 90 days. It will then be given to American Indian tribes for reburial.
"We will work closely with that state organization to transfer the remains in an expedited fashion," Amy J. Gaskill, spokeswoman for the Army Corps, said.
The Ancient One
Scientists long considered the discovery of the Kennewick Man as one of the biggest in U.S. history. Many hoped that the remains would help uncover the mystery behind the first Americans in the country and where they may have come from.
However, Native American tribes objected to conducting scientific tests on the Ancient One's remains. They believe it would be disrespectful to the Kennewick Man if his remains were to be destroyed during testing, and demanded that he be returned to them for proper reburial instead.
The discovery also triggered a debate regarding a law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was designed to address long-standing issues concerning the collection of human remains by museums.
One of NAGPRA's primary goals is to return ancient skeletons and mummies to their closest descendant group. Since the law's passing in 1990, federal authorities have returned as many as 50,000 sets of ancient human remains to their rightful descendant groups in the U.S.
Some scientists argue that ancient remains, such as those of the Kennewick Man, are not covered by the principles of NAGPRA as they are too old to be considered direct ancestors of any living group.
Native Americans, on the other hand, claim that the Ancient One is one of them, and his remains should be returned to them.
This conflict in beliefs is what caused the return of the Kennewick Man's remains to be delayed by close to 20 years.
Now that the president has signed the bill returning custody of the Kennewick Man to Native Americans, many believe that the Ancient One will finally be laid to rest.