Tuesday, February 28, 2006

They came to bury Kennewick Man, not praise him

They came to bury Kennewick Man, not praise him. This is a "History in the News" column from USA Today. It recounts some of the findings that scientists have discovered about Kennewick Man who died about 9,300 years ago.

This study almost did not happen. Several Native American tribes sued to stop Kennewick Man from being studied under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The tribes lost as they could not prove Kennewick Man was their ancestor and scientists were finally cleared to study the remains last year.

I am sympathetic to the claims of the Native Americans in this case. I do not believe that American Indian burial sites should be disturbed for study without tribal consent. However, I think there needs to be a time limit imposed on the invocation of this law. It is going to be nearly impossible to ever learn anything about the migration of humans into pre-historic America if all remains from these times are seized and reburied without study. (And no, I do not know how far back a time limit should be imposed. But I think it is a reasonable suggestion.)

The Clovis Migration Theory has been shown to have some flaws. There is evidence that humans have been in the new world much longer than previously believed. Further, there may have been waves of immigrants not only from Asia but from Polynesia, Africa, and Europe too. Some of these groups may have been wiped out or assimilated into other communities. This is an exciting field of study and I hope more evidence (human remains or other) can be found to help build knowledge in this area.

From the site:

It's not quite CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but the oldest forensic science case in the country is back in the spotlight. Scientists have presented their evaluation of the remains of a man who died 9,300 years ago, the fruit of a nine-year legal battle for the right to examine the skeleton now known as "Kennewick Man." The bones were found by two boating enthusiasts along the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash. in 1996.

At last week's American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference in Seattle, Smithsonian Institution scientist Doug Owsley presented results of a "taphonomy" of the bones. Taphonomy is the "study of the transformation of materials into the archaeological record," according to The Penguin Archaeology Guide (I keep a copy on the nightstand), one of those fun science words that basically means, "how this thing got buried."

And Kennewick Man was deliberately buried. A 20-member science team working last year has determined the man's body was likely interred along the river, arms at his side and hands down with head slightly inclined upward, Owsley said. His feet were pointed downstream. The bones had been washed out of their burial place by heavy rains about six weeks before their discovery.


Jennie W said...

It definitely is a hard line to find - when should you be able to study bones without consent. A find like the Kennewick man doesn't come along that often and is so important to science. At the same time, we are disinterring remains that were purposely buried. I think that the bones must be treated with respect, but in a way, we are honoring them by studying them. I know the thought that my bones could further historical knowledge in 9300 years would make me happy. I wouldn't mind my ancestors being studied for scientific knowledge, but that's just me. If we were to pick a "time out" date it would be very hard to pick. No matter what the time frame is, it will offend some people.

Mike J said...

When one studies the history of the Kennewick Man (KM), some of the questions surrounding the analysis of the skeleton become obvious, at least to me.

Jennie W. asks " ... when should you (seemingly meaning scientists) be able to study bones without consent." This would be tough to answer in some cases nearer in time, but in the case of the KM, who is going to provide "consent?"

First of all, there is no one to give "consent." The native american tribes claimed that KM was one of their ancestors, but they could not develop a racial connection that they were related to KM, who was at first thought to be Caucasoid, but who is now thought to be of Ainu (a race of folks in Japan that have Caucasoid features) or Polynesian origin. Many other rationales for the claims of the Native Americans were thought to be impossible claims by the judge in the final lawsuit that gave the scientists permission to study the bones.

Secondly, the bones are being studied with great honor. There are protections in the scientific protocols being used in the study that will preserve the skeleton and not deface, or otherwise do damage, to it.

The knowledge of how the Americas were originally settled will be enhanced tremendouly by the skeleton. The racial identity of the KM completely destroys the commonly held belief that the Americas were first populated by Asians crossing the Bering Strait during a time when it was frozen . Virtually every textbook on the subject has taught this belief.

Anyway, it is extremely interesting to have followed this series of events as they have unfolded.

Mike J