Twelve Kumeyaay Indian tribes in San Diego County have filed a legal suit to make the University of California hand over the 10,000-year-old remains of an adult Paleo-Indian male and female, discovered in 1976 buried on a cliff-top at La Jolla, for traditional reburial. Three University of California professors have filed a counter action to block the transfer of the remains, saying there is no evidence that they are related to the Kumeyaay and should be preserved for research.
Attorney Dorothy Alther representing the Kumeyaay said, “A lot of the tribes were concerned that their ancestors were lying around in the basements of museums and not being properly interred.” She believes the Kumeyaay’s case is strengthened by US law on Native American remains, which says that even if they are not “culturally identifiable” with modern tribes, they should still be handed over to the tribes in whose “aboriginal lands” they were found.
James McManis, the lawyer for the professors, disagrees, “These are not Native Americans. We’re sure where they’re from. They had primarily a seafood diet, not the diet in any way of these tribes. They were a seafaring people. They could be travelling Irishman who touched on the continent. The idea that we’re going to turn this incredible treasure over to some local tribe because they think it’s grandma’s bones is crazy.”
One of the professors, Robert Bettinger, wrote (somewhat more rationally) in a declaration to court, “Because the La Jolla Skeletons are so old, and the information about their era so limited, it cannot reasonably be concluded that they share special or significant genetic or cultural features with presently existing indigenous tribes, people or cultures.”
Another of the professors, Margaret Schoeninger, wrote in her declaration that the skeletons were not buried in a way that matched other pre-colonial Kumeyaay finds. Furthermore, chemical analysis indicated that the pair ate a diet of seafood and mammals that was quite different from the Kumeyaay. Schoeninger previously wrote, “We are now beginning to realize that some of these early folks may have come from the area of Polynesia or Japan. It isn’t known if they died out or if they left descendants.”
The university has not undertaken any genetic testing of the remains out of respect for the Native Americans’ wishes, but the professors believe that the remains and their DNA offer the rare opportunity to discover more about the earliest modern human migrations into North America.