Pre-empting a legal showdown, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has agreed to a US federal court injunction not to disturb or move two ancient skeletons until the institution resolves a lawsuit brought against it by three researchers.
The roughly 10,000-year-old remains of a male and female were unearthed in 1976 during a UCSD construction project and have been the subject of a protracted tug-of-war over ownership ever since. Researchers believe the bones could help to shed light on North America’s earliest human inhabitants and should remain available for scientific study. The Kumeyaay Native American tribes seek to re-bury the remains that they say were removed from their ancestral lands.
The Kumeyaay sued the university on 13 April to recover the skeletons. Three days later, anthropologists Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Bettinger of University of California, Davis, and Margaret Schoeninger of UCSD sued the university to prevent the bones from being transferred to the Kumeyaay.
The 7 May injunction, signed by Judge Richard Seeborg of the US District Court of the Northern District of California, extends a temporary restraining order granted last week, which was to remain in effect until an 11 May hearing. In a surprise move, the university agreed to the injunction ahead of schedule. “It saved everybody a lot of trouble. It’s certainly the right thing to do for the university,” says Jim McManis, an attorney based in San Jose, California, who represents the researchers.
According to the scientists’ lawsuit, no evidence exists to tie the Kumeyaay to the disputed remains. The bones may even pre-date the Kumeyaay tribes’ history in the region.
At the heart of the researchers’ case is controversy over a 2010 rule that extended the rights of Native Americans under the Native American Graves Protection Act. Although the original act required federally funded institutions to transfer remains to “culturally affiliated” tribes, the 2010 rule allows “culturally unaffiliated” tribes to request remains found on their present or ancestral territories.
UCSD triggered the present lawsuits when it announced in December its intentions to transfer the contested remains to the Kumeyaay.
“We think that would be a breach of trust, on the part of the university, because it’s a very valuable scientific treasure, which they’re essentially giving to some group that has no connection with these remains,” says McManis.
The injunction protects the bones for the duration of the scientists’ lawsuit, which McManis says could be as long as one to two years. If the university and the anthropologists cannot settle their case, the skeletons may find themselves in a similar situation to that of ‘Kennewick Man’ — an ancient skeleton now in legal limbo, owned by the US government and closeted in a court-designated neutral repository at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.