Two skeletons that rested undisturbed on a San Diego cliff top for nearly 10,000 years are at the center of a modern court battle.
The University of California, San Diego, had intended to transfer the skeletons of a man and woman to a Native American tribe for traditional burial. But lawsuits are complicating the plan.
The bones were discovered in 1976 during an excavation at University House, the traditional La Jolla home of the UC San Diego chancellor. The university was preparing to hand over the bones to the local Kumeyaay tribe when three UC professors filed a lawsuit last week in Northern California to block the transfer.
Margaret Schoeninger of UC San Diego, Robert Bettinger of UC Davis and Timothy White of UC Berkeley argued that the bones were precious research objects and there was no evidence they are related to the Kumeyaay.
In a declaration, Schoeninger said the skeletons were not buried in a way consistent with ancient Kumeyaay practices and collagen taken from the bones indicated the two ate ocean fish and mammals different from that of the tribe.
"We're talking about remains that are old beyond belief. There's no way that you can connect those remains to any present day Indian tribe," said James McManis, who represents the professors.
Research suggests the first bands of Americans arrived from Asia over a land-bridge between Siberia and Alaska when sea levels were lower. Some scientists think some of the early inhabitants arrived by boat and followed a coastal route into the New World.
McManis said it appeared the bones belonged to seafaring people who likely came by boat and touched down in San Diego.
The lawsuit was first reported by the U-T San Diego in Wednesday's editions.
Respecting Native American preferences, the university has not permitted DNA testing of the bones, which are being kept at the San Diego Archaeological Center in Escondido.
In anticipation of the professors' suit, a dozen bands of Kumeyaay filed their own federal suit earlier this month, demanding transfer of the skeletons.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires museums to inventory remains and artifacts in their collections and consult with tribes and native organizations on repatriation. In cases where remains cannot be traced to a modern tribe and a tribe claims possession, museums have to determine if they came from a reservation and offer to transfer.
"A lot of the tribes were concerned that their ancestors were lying around in the basements of museums and not being properly interred," said Dorothy Alther, an attorney for the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, which represents the 12 bands.
"What we're saying is that these are Native American remains," Alther told the newspaper. "But even if someone says they are not, they were found on aboriginal lands. They go to the Kumeyaay."
McManis countered that the remains were found on the university campus and not on aboriginal land.
The university is aware of the competing lawsuits, spokesman Jeff Gattas said in a statement.
"We believe the university process has achieved a decision that is in accordance with both the law and our commitment to the respectful handling of human remains and associated artifacts," he said.