Members of a local Native American tribe – the Kumeyaay – want to rebury the remains, which they believe are their ancestors. In December, UCSD agreed to hand over the skeletons, but in April three palaeoanthropologists filed a lawsuit against UCSD to keep the remains for research. The Kumeyaay had anticipated the move and filed their own lawsuit days earlier. Last week, the university agreed to a judge's order to keep the remains in a safe place until a final ruling.
Since 1990, US law has mandated universities to return Native American artefacts and remains to their respective tribes. But UCSD's scientific advisory board determined that there is no evidence that these two skeletons are related to the Kumeyaay, even though they were discovered on that tribe's ancestral lands. Isotopic evidence taken from the skeletons suggests they ate seafood – unlike the Kumeyaay's traditional diet – and the Kumeyaay traditionally cremate their deceased rather than bury them.
James McManis, an attorney in San Jose who represents the three palaeoanthropologists, is confident that scientific evidence outweighs the tribe's claim. Lawyers for the tribe nevertheless insist that research on the bones would be disrespectful.
"Nowhere in the world is this sensitivity so acute as in the US," says anthropologist Bryan Sykes at the University of Oxford. He believes that tensions were escalated by a recent case where researchers in Arizona performed DNA analysis on the Havasupai tribe's ancestry without their consent. The results indicated that the people hadn't always lived in North America, contrary to tribal beliefs.
Reardon, Sara. 2012. "The ancient American bones at centre of two lawsuits". New Scientist. Posted: May 16, 2012. Available online: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21817-the-ancient-american-bones-at-centre-of-two-lawsuits.html