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The Kennewick Man Case | News & Comment

Standing up for Science

Starting in October 1997, the plaintiff scientists have raised repeated concerns about the Army Corps of Engineers care of the Kennewick Man skeleton. Reports had circulated concerning missing bones and the possibility of more than one individual in the collection. Finally over opposition from the government agencies involved (Army Corps of Engineers, Department of the Interior, and the Department of Justice), the court gave permission in May, 1998, for an assessment of the skeleton by Dr. Douglas Owsley, Division Head of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution and Dr. James Chatters, the forensic archeologist who recovered the bones. Even so, the government denied them access to the bones in June 1998, although Dr. Owsley was in Portland ready to travel to Richland.

The delays continued through the summer and a plan was finally agreed to this fall. However, not all issues were resolved by this plan, and the plaintiff scientists were forced to return to the court for a ruling on whether Dr. Chatters would be allowed to participate in the scheduled inventory and condition evaluation. The scientists' goal was to obtain a complete, baseline inventory of the skeleton that would not be contested in the future by any of the parties.

One reason given for the government's opposition to Dr. Chatters was the size of the examination room, which supposedly was already overcrowded with tribal and Asatru observers, and Dr. Trimble's team, two assistants and three conservators. In addition, the Department of Justice argued that Dr. Chatters' participation was unnecessary even though he is the only person with first-hand knowledge of the condition of the skeleton when he relinquished custody. They also argued that Dr. Chatters was unqualified to assess the bones because he does not have a Ph.D. degree in Physical Anthropology (a degree that does not exist in the United States). Dr. Chatters has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Washington and teaches a college course in osteology at Central Washington University at Ellensburg.

The Department of Justice also denied the use of a tape recorder or laptop computer, dictating that only pencils were allowed during the inventory. Fortunately, the court issued a statement that allowed Dr. Chatters' participation and allowed Dr. Owsley to use a cassette recorder to capture his comments during the inventory. The court's ruling was a victory for the plaintiffs' effort to insist on sound scientific methods and to resist the government's censorship of a qualified scientist.

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