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(Reuters) - The 8,500-year-old remains of the so-called Kennewick Man whose almost complete skeleton was discovered in Washington state in 1996 are Native American, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has concluded after studying new information.
Kennewick Man is one of just a few well-preserved North American skeletons that date back more than 8,000 years, and is one of the only good examples from the Pacific Northwest. It has also been at the center of a dispute over its fate.
The Corps' determination means the remains are now subject to procedures outlined in the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), as a coalition of Native American tribes had demanded, the Corps said.
"My decision ... has been an important one to make and is based on the best available evidence," Brigadier General Scott A. Spellmon, Commanding General of the Northwestern Division, said in a statement this week. "I am confident that our review and analysis of new skeletal, statistical, and genetic evidence have convincingly led to a Native American Determination."
The Corps' findings echo those of international researchers published last year that were based on DNA evidence and contradicted a 2014 study of anatomical data which had suggested the skeleton was most closely linked to Polynesian or indigenous Japanese populations.
The Kennewick Man was named for the site where the skeleton was discovered by two men on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' land at the McNary Dam Project on the banks of the Columbia River.
It has since been at the focus of a legal dispute between scientists, who want to study the remains, and the coalition of Native American tribes, which argued for their reburial.
NAGPRA requires that Native American remains be turned over to tribes that want to bury them.
Following the determination, which was published on Wednesday, the Corps said its next step will be to review the priority of custody for any Native American tribe that submits a claim. Meanwhile, the Corps said, the remains will continue to be curated at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by David Gregorio