03 May 2012

Cultural affiliations of an "ancient American"

Those familiar with the saga of the Kennewick Man will find this news interesting:
A federal court judge in San Francisco granted a temporary restraining order Friday to prevent the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), from handing over 9000-year-old human bones to Native Americans, in the latest twist in an unusual custody battle for two human skeletons that are among the earliest found in the Americas...

The bones were discovered in 1976 during an excavation at University House in La Jolla, which is the traditional home of the UCSD chancellor. The Kumeyaay, representing 12 federated tribes, have been seeking the remains for reburial, claiming that they were found on their traditional lands. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums and other institutions must repatriate remains and artifacts that can be traced to a tribe. A controversial rule concerning this law, issued in 2010 by the Department of the Interior, gives tribes a way to recover even remains that cannot be linked to specific groups. The new lawsuits may test that rule...

The professors, anthropologist Margaret Schoeninger of UCSD, paleo-anthropologist Robert Bettinger of UC Davis, and paleoanthropologist Tim White of UC Berkeley, filed the lawsuit to block the repatriation, saying that there is no evidence that these bones are related to the Kumeyaay, and in fact, the evidence suggests otherwise. The scientific advisory committee found that the Kumeyaay language moved into the region 2000 years ago, and that the Kumeyaay traditionally cremated their dead rather than burying them. Moreover, Schoeninger's lab's analysis of stable isotopes from samples of the skeletons indicated that they ate a diet of marine mammals and offshore fish—a coastal adaptation that contrasts with the desert origins of the Kumeyaay. Anthropologists who study the bones and DNA of Paleoindians also agree that the remains are probably too old to have any affiliation, cultural or otherwise, with tribes living in southern California today. 
The ethics are complicated; I'm not offering an answer - just presenting the problem for consideration.

Photo credit: Jan Austin/Santa Monica Community College.


  1. Has any European ever insisted on reburying an archaeological find? Unlike the Native Americans, the Vikings kept records...they could actually document descent from a bog body or such. If archaeology were disrespectful, we wouldn't do it to Europeans.

    1. Has any European ever insisted on reburying an archaeological find?

      I'm curious why that matters.

    2. Unlike the Native Americans, Vikings didn't have pale people come over and wipe out their people, culture, and history with disease, trickery, deceit and violence.

  2. This is so frustrating. It shows a clear lack of respect on the part of these researchers (whose "evidence"--surprise!--supports what they want it to support so they can keep a hold of these "samples," and for what purpose I wonder). I'd rather these scientists "err" on the side of respecting the wishes of the Native Americans. Sometimes science (and scientists) has to pay for its past mistakes and disrespectful behavior toward Indians and Native Americans.

    1. It shows no lack of respect on the part of the researchers whatsoever and if they were to err on the side of "respecting wishes" that is precisely what it would be, an error.

    2. On the other hand though, one of the BIG questions about pre-history within North America is/are the Clovis People. Recent Native American practice is most closely related to Asian practice (which is reflected in the DNA), but the technology of the Clovis People is most closely related to the Solutrians (sp?) of France! One suggestion is that Solutrians reached North America first, via the Ice Age North Atlantic, and after they were wiped out (via a comet along the lines of the Tungustica Event in Siberia around 100 years ago) along with most of the large animals, and the proto-Indians were second. I am part Indian (1/32nd) and so find some sympathy with both sides and cannot help but wonder if there is perhaps some middle ground that both can agree at. Perhaps allowing a full and extensive (but minimally harmful) scientific examination of the remains for a "limited" period of time (say maybe a couple of years), after which the Amerinds would be allowed to bury the remains as they wish.

      And Dinepo, at least some elements of their people, culture and history survived, unlike say the early British Picts (who were NOT Celts), or the Druids, or any number of other primitive tribes in the past which were either completely wiped out, or were sold into slavery, and such.

      An ex-Paddy's Pathfinder

  3. I'm always saddened when I hear of disputes over ancient remains - it seems to me that those who came before us don't need their bones anymore, whereas science can only advance where there are specimens available for study. It's certainly appropriate to honor the ancestors, while at the same time allowing their remains to teach us about them and tell their story, so that ultimately we can have a better understanding of the bigger story (or better yet, jigsaw-puzzle) of humanity.

  4. Native Americans of course have plenty of historical justification for being angry and obstructionist, but I say science takes president over flimsy religious considerations.

    Old bones, and the tales they tell, are excellent. Perhaps more effort should be made winning tribal members over to the cause of science.
    Or we could allow them to exhume and examine the remains of Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, maybe make rattles out of their bones.

  5. DNA has shown incontrovertably that there were five incursions into the Americas. One of those came from Europe, and one from Polynesia, if I recall. Clovis Man and all who were here at 12,900 years ago (at the beginning of the Younger-Dryas cold period, or 'stadial') seem to have been wiped out at the same time the mammoths and about 32 other megafauna went extinct in the Americas. Few if any remains have been dated to the Younger-Dryas, which lasted about 1,2000 years, ending about 11,700 years ago. So, even though people had been here a long time (the latest info seems to point to at least 22,000 years ago for the first incursion from Europe).

    So, it seems there probably had to be new incursions. Clovis Man didn't last. Bones dated to 9,000 years ago seem to show that the UCSD person was neither Clovis nor any of the others - while at the same time certainly not being a Kumeyaay.

    The heinous acts of the US Army Corps of Engineers, when they bulldozed the site of Kennewick Man (on behalf of the Indian tribes), was one of the worst violations ever, of our right to learn about our history. Thankfully the Federal courts in that case came down on the side of science.

    If the Indians cannot show that they were heara 8,000 or 9,000 years ago, they should have ZERO claim on any remains. It is bad enough that their reservations are considered 'sacred' and thus off-limits to science. But they don't have a leg to stand on with older remains. Someone who was here a long time ago is NOT necessarily an Indian. Any claims to that effect are not based on fact. As this case shows - again. It is ridiculous that the Indians look like they are going to make these claims every time a really old skeleton is found. If so, shame on them.

  6. It has been a very difficult time, finding out the history of man in the Americas. Between the Indians and the Clovis First arkies, our history has had obstruction after obstruction. Finally 15 years ago Clovis First was shot down. And NOW we have the capacity to start finding out what REALLY happened. FINALLY. An entire TWO generations have been lost. And thanks be to mtDNA, too, to back up and add to the discoveries that have finally been not been obstructed.

    BTW, along the lines of Anonyomous above, I will say that I am 1/8th Cherokee, but I have no sympathies for people keeping us from getting at the truth. We had the Roman Church for over 1500 years (actually closer to 2,000, all told) putting religion ahead of knowledge. And now we have road blocks put up by the religions of the Indians. I don't agree that we should pander to those religions if we aren't pandering to White Man's religion.


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