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ANCHORAGE - Human remains estimated to be more than 10,000 years old that were found in a cave in the Tongass National Forest rightfully belong to the southeast Alaska Tlingit tribes, the federal government said.
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Now, 11 years after they were found during a U.S. Forest Service archaeological survey, the remains will be returned to the tribe, agency officials announced Friday. It will be the first time a federal agency has handed custody of such ancient finds over to an indigenous group under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, they said.
"It's a pretty substantial find," said Tongass spokesman Phil Sammon.
Vertebrae, ribs, teeth, a mandible and a pelvic bone were among the remains discovered in 1996 during a government archaeological survey for a proposed timber sale on northern Prince of Wales Island. The area is the aboriginal homeland for Tlingit tribes.
Stone tools also were found inside On Your Knees Cave, an extensive limestone network.
The Forest Service immediately consulted with area tribes as required by the repatriation law, which mandates that federal agencies and institutions receiving federal money return American Indian remains and cultural items to tribes.
There was never any dispute that the remains should go to Tlingit tribes in Craig and Klawock, communities on the island, officials said. The tribes and Sealaska Corp. - the southeast Alaska Native regional corporation - in February petitioned the agency for custody of the remains.
The petition came after a lengthy process that included scientific analysis that determined the remains were 10,300 years old. Through DNA and other testing, researchers identified the remains as belonging to an indigenous man in his early 20s who subsisted primarily on seafood.
Some tribal members initially balked at allowing the studies to be done instead of immediate interment. But in the end they backed a study after determining the remains were scattered in the cave - possibly by scavengers - and not taken from a burial site.
In the remains, the tribes perceived an ancestor offering himself for knowledge and learning, said anthropologist Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, the nonprofit cultural and educational arm of the Native corporation.
"The elders also saw it as a way of validating our ancient presence here in southeast Alaska," said Worl, a Tlingit. "A number of elders have said it proves we've been here since time immemorial."
The tribes will file a separate claim for the stone tools, which are from a different period, Worl said. The artifacts are made of obsidian, or volcanic glass, not naturally found in the area, suggesting early residents used boats to get around the coastal region.
The find also could support a theory that people migrated from Asia as well as oral Tlingit histories about coastal migrations, according to Worl. "We're very, very excited and very proud of our people," she said.
Finding remains so old is uncommon but not unheard of, said Sherry Hutt, repatriation program manager for the National Park Service. What stood out about the Tlingit case, she said, is the level of cooperation involved.
Worl said she was happy the outcome was sharply different from the Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found near the Columbia River in Washington state. Disputes over the Kennewick Man have pitted archeologists against Indian tribes in the Northwest.
"I think ours is a really good example of what can be accomplished when scientists and federal agencies recognize the legal rights of Native people," Worl said.