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Scientists spur debate over First Americans

Mastodon unearthed
San Diego Natural History Museum paleontologist Don Swanson points to a rock fragment near a large piece of a mastodon tusk at the excavation site. (San Diego Natural History Museum Photo)

Scientists say the patterns of breakage in mastodon bones found 25 years ago near a San Diego highway suggest that humans battered the beast 130,000 years ago.

That’s a shocker, because before now, the oldest widely accepted evidence of human habitation in North America goes back only about 16,000 years. If the scientists are right, that makes the place they studied, known as the Cerutti Mastodon site, the oldest archaeological site in North America.

“It’s somewhat mind-boggling to have 130,000 years proposed,” said University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins. He has found previous evidence for human habitation in 14,000-year-old preserved poop but wasn’t involved in the latest study, published today by the journal Nature.

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It’s official: ‘Ancient One’ was Native American

Image: Kennewick Man
Experts collaborated to create a bust showing how Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One, may have looked. (Sculpted bust by StudioEIS; forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning; photograph by Brittany Tatchell / Smithsonian)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just ruled that an 8,500-year-old set of skeletal remains known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One belonged to a Native American tribe, based on DNA tests that came out nearly a year ago.

It took that long for experts to weigh the genetic evidence, plus other anatomical evidence that has been the focus of a 20-year-long legal tug of war. Earlier this month, a trio of scientists from the University of Chicago issued a technical report declaring that the DNA findings published last June in Nature were sound.

The remains were found on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996. Five Pacific Northwest tribes pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the bones, to hand them over in accordance with a federal law on the repatriation of remains. However, a group of scientists sued to block the handover, arguing that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe.

Federal judges sided with the scientists, and as a result, the corps retained custody of the skeleton and made it available for study. Now that the studies are finished, the 380 bones and bone fragments are locked away in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

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