A battle is on between scientists and native American Indians over the identity of America's first inhabitants. New evidence suggests that the Indians are not quite as indigenous as previously believed, that they themselves might be descended from the same stock as their erstwhile European tormentors. The scientists, who have thus far reached only preliminary conclusions, want to examine the evidence further. The Indians want, quite literally, to bury it.
One day towards the end of July the local coroner in the desert town of Kennewick, on the border of Oregon and Washington state, asked James Chatters, a local anthropologist, to examine a skeleton discovered on the shore of the Columbia River. Dr Chatters studied the skull, the shape of the face, the teeth, the nose, the mandible, the eye sockets, found them all to be remarkably well-preserved, and concluded that these were the remains not of an American Indian - as he had initially expected - but of a Caucasian male.
As Dr Chatters was at pains to explain in an interview last week, the term "Caucasian" is not limited to people of European descent. "The boundaries stretch from Ireland to north-west China and from North Africa to Scandinavia, including India," he said. His initial thought, however, was that the skeleton must have belonged to a European pioneer of the early 19th century. Intrigued, he sent a small sample - the little finger of the left hand - for radiocarbon dating to an internationally respected laboratory at the University of California. To his astonishment, the laboratory reported back that the bones were between 9,300 and 9,400 years old.
If Dr Chatters was right in his finding that this had been a Caucasian male, he had stumbled across the most compelling evidence to date supporting the theory that North America's first settlers had migrated from Asia, and possibly Europe, across the icy land mass that once covered the Bering Straits. "Kennewick Man" could be the missing link.
Dr Chatters, aware of the potential enormity of his discovery, invited Catherine MacMillan to cast her expert eye on the skeleton. "American Indians have shovel-shaped incisors and wide cheek bones: these were not in evidence here," said Dr MacMillan, professor emeritus of forensic anthropology at Central Washington University. "My opinion, based on the characteristics I found, is that this was indeed a Caucasian male."
The two scientists agreed that the bones should be submitted to more thorough investigation - to DNA tests and more radiocarbon dating - so as to build up a more accurate and detailed profile of the dead man's history. But then word got out of Dr Chatters's discovery, and the local Indian tribe on whose ancestral lands the skeleton was found suddenly stepped into the picture. Drawing on a federal law passed in 1990, they claimed the bones as their own and declared that at the earliest opportunity they would give them a full ceremonial burial.
The local sheriff was forced to agree that the Umatilla Indians had interpreted the Native American Graves Protection Act correctly, and so he did as he was supposed to do: he locked up the bones in his office. As things stand, they will remain far from the prying eyes of scientists and any other interested parties until 25 October, whereupon the Umatillas will be perfectly within their rights to consign Kennewick Man to a long overdue eternal rest.
The prospect appalls the scientific community. Steve Hackenberg, the chair of anthropology at Central Washington University, said he experienced "a feeling of emptiness" at the notion of the investigation being stopped in its tracks. "The conclusion might prove to be highly significant for the way we think about America," he said.
Rob Bonnichsen, director of the Centre for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University, said the entire human race would suffer were the Umatillas to have their way. "We're talking about our understanding of the human heritage," he said.
"We're talking about the fundamental question: who were the first Americans? The story is very compli- cated and it is not all in. If you bury the evidence it will never be in. It would be a loss to all people, all mankind." According to Dr Bonnichsen, the controversy with the Umatillas boils down to "a question of who owns the past, who controls it. And there are different rationales from the scientific side and the native Americans' side".
According to Indian oral history, the Umatillas were created in the place where they now live. They have their religious myths and, in the same way as those Christians who take the story of Adam and Eve literally, they see the scientists' evolutionary theories as heretical mumbo-jumbo. The notion that people who walked their lands 9,300 years ago looked differently from the way contemporary Umatillas look is profoundly subversive.
Jeff Van Pelt is a tribal member and manager of an Umatilla cultural resources centre in the town of Pendleton, across the Columbia River from Kennewick in Oregon. Curt on the phone, unwilling to discuss the matter at any length, he said: "The only thing I can tell you is that through the 1990 federal legislation we have made a claim on the human remains, and we're basically planning to reinter the tribal member."
But how certain was he that the remains had indeed belonged to a tribal member? "Well," he said, "because he is 9,000 years old, and the evidence the scientists have used to make their determinations has, in our opinion, many holes in it." How did he know that? "The science is not very accurate," Mr Van Pelt said. "The people making this determination are very romantically involved. Our policy is to have respect for these human remains and to care for them in a way consistent with our beliefs."
The scientific romantics, attached as they are to their own set of orthodoxies, will not allow Kennewick Man to go under without a fight. Anthropologists from as far afield as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC have been writing letters to the authorities in Washington state, requesting that the reburial plans be halted until all the necessary academic and genetic studies have been completed. Dr MacMillan ended one of her letters, to Washington's attorney general, with the plea: "Please make every effort to avert such a travesty."
The letter of the law is not on the scientists' side, however, so their best hope lies in seeking a political solution of one sort or another. One individual involved in the controversy, who was anxious not to be named in print, said there were indications at the end of last week that, in response to the outcry from the scientific community, "a white knight" might have appeared on the horizon. They would not be more specific other than to note cryptically that the Umatillas owned a casino and a state- funded museum and, if things did not turn out the way the scientists and a growing sector of the public wanted, they could see their businesses suffer.
Which suggests that the answer to one of the more intriguing questions about the origin of man could turn on the Umatillas' making a choice familiar to other American Indian tribes who own casinos: what matters more, the sacred beliefs of the ancients or the health of their current accounts?