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Kennewick Man DNA test unsuccessful

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SEATTLE - None of three laboratories examining bone samples of Kennewick Man has been able to successfully extract and amplify DNA using a "variety of protocols, " reports Department of Interior's chief archaeologist Francis P. McManamon, Ph.D.

The fourth monthly progress report on the DNA analysis of Kennewick Man was filed early this month.

Interior is rapidly coming up on the Sept. 26 deadline imposed by District Judge John Jelderks for a determination of cultural affiliation of the 9,000-year-old skeleton. The report, while lackluster, indicates the DNA testing is on schedule. Interior expects final lab results by Sept. 1, whether testing proves viable or not.

The laboratories' failure supports what many tribal cultural spokesmen have been saying all along, that no viable DNA could be extracted from the bones and that destruction of bone has been both disrespectful and unnecessary.

The DNA testing was ordered, over the protests of tribes, because extensive physical examination by a team of experts selected by McManamon in 1999 failed to come up with sufficient evidence to pinpoint affiliation, as per requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Although the Umatilla, Yakama, Wanapum, Nez Perce and Colville tribes have submitted extensive cultural data, including artifacts, oral histories and maps, showing the area in which Kennewick Man was discovered falls into their usual and accustomed territories, so far scientists at Interior remain unimpressed and unconvinced.

Tribes find the continued failure by Interior to determine cultural affiliation frustrating, but not surprising.

"Frank McManamon is an archaeological scientist who is promoting science," says Jeff Van Pelt, cultural resources protection manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "Everything that we have ever submitted, he tears apart and tries to get us to answer questions that are theoretical questions that the archaeological community can't even answer."

Van Pelt says McManamon is unfairly requiring tribes to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they have continuity between Kennewick Man's era and now, when NAGPRA only requires a "preponderance of evidence" indicating continuity. He says McManamon is following a double-standard when it comes to the tribes.

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"He's not implementing NAGPRA," says Van Pelt. "What he's doing, in my opinion, is trying to become the leading expert on ancient skeletons and how to keep them out of repatriation through NAGPRA."

Alan Schneider, lead attorney for the eight scientists who filed suit against Interior for the right to study the skeleton in 1996, agrees the report is unsurprising. He says it may serve as the basis for further delay in court proceedings that have already dragged on for four years.

"We've always thought that DNA analysis should be conducted," he said. "But they're doing it for purposes of cultural affiliation, and that's ridiculous. Biology doesn't prove culture, because you can adopt people into a tribe and people in the tribe can break their tribal affiliation and become affiliated with another tribe. Biology doesn't prove anything."

Schneider also pointed out the hypocrisy of Interior conducting the exact same tests the Bonnichsen plaintiffs wanted to do, but to which McManamon originally objected on behalf of the tribes and cultural sensitivity.

He maintains his clients wanted to use a mere fraction of the amount of bone McManamon's team has extracted for the destructive DNA sampling.

"I think what we've got here is the government saying, 'This is our skeletal remains until proven otherwise, and it's up to us to decide what we're going to do or not do, and nobody is going to tell us otherwise,'" Schneider says. For once, the Bonnichsen scientists and the tribes are in agreement.

Van Pelt, who has told the Umatilla Tribal Council he is taking the gloves off and is personally standing up to call things the way he sees it, maintains the government agency, led by McManamon, is on a hunt for the archaeological Holy Grail. He says that for decades, archaeologists and anthropologists have been trying to prove the land bridge hypothesis that the North and South American continents were populated by tribes migrating from Asia and Europe across the frozen Bering Sea.

So far they have lacked proof. The 9,000 year-old Kennewick Man, the oldest recovered skeleton in North America, is situated in just the right spot geographically and temporally to present the "proof" of the land bridge migration idea. Only the tribes, with their spiritual objections to scientific scrutiny, stand in the way.

"NAGPRA is a direct threat to the information that they need to take that hypothesis into theory, and that's why they're battling it right now," Van Pelt says. "These scientists want to become $1,000 an hour guest speakers at the different universities and different conferences. That's what this is all about. It is about notoriety. It is about survival. It is about their constitutional right to pursue fame in America."