Thursday, August 28, 2014

Smithsonian on Kennewick skeleton again

Smithsonian Magazine has a triumphalist story about the Institution’s investigations into the bones of "The Kennewick Man,” skeletal remains found in central Oregon and dated to some 8900 years BP.

Since 1996 these bones have made almost everyone look bad. Evidence about North America 9000 years ago is precious. But local First Nations, sick of endless pillaging of their ancestors’ graves, insisted on immediate reburial of these bones. The American Corps of Engineers, wanting to avoid the whole thing, poured a million tons of rockfill over the discovery site. Archaeologists sued, judges got involved.

To overcome NAGPRA, the American law that empowers First Nations to protect ancestral remains, the archaeologists had to convince the courts, not that research on this skeleton was valuable, but that the Kennewick bones were not ancestral to the aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest today, and therefore were exempt from NAGPRA.

A lot of dangerous nonsense was put forward, to the effect that the skeleton was “Caucasoid,” that the man in question “wouldn’t stand out walking down a Stockholm street.” This enabled American courts to say the man who left his bones at Kennewick was not ancestral to contemporary American Indians, and so his remains could be retained for research. Supporting research was a worthy outcome, but it was based on nasty and damaging fictions. Lurid claims about proto-Europeans in North America were encouraged, and the whole thing once again put archaeology in the position of helping efforts to delegitimize native sovereignty movements, land claims, and aboriginal affirmation in general.

Now the research has been done. The Smithsonian story now says nothing about the bold “Caucasoid” claims made years ago, but there is still “a non-North American” story being pitched here, now a little more nuanced. The prime researcher – he was also the prime litigant – now likes to emphasize that the remains resemble those of early East Asian people. The reconstruction will borrow from Ainu and Jomon likenesses from early Japan. The bones found at Kennewick are still being played up as foreign and shocking and disruptive. Could not be connected to the Nez Perce or the Umatilla or the Yakama!

But the resemblance, physical, genetic, cultural, of early Pacific Northwest First Nations and early northeast Asian peoples should be unremarkable and uncontroversial. The Smithsonian story seems to be struggling to get around the fact that the research predicated on the claim that the Kennewick skeleton was NOT ancestral to modern west coast aboriginal people … has actually proven that it was and is. The Smithsonian story reports some remarkable work in physical anthropology, but it is still loathe to admit what should have been obvious and uncontroversial now and back in 1996 – that anyone who was ceremonially interred near the Columbia River in about 6900 BCE was part of a community that lived in northwestern North America then, and still does.

We would learn a lot more from Kennewick skeleton if the Smithsonian stopped trying to claim he ain’t who he obviously was. And we might hear fewer politically-motivated claims that the First Nations are not, you know, the first nations.

Update, June 26, 2015: And now DNA analysis is in.  The Kennewick bones yield up DNA that conforms precisely to what would be expected in an ancestor of the First Nations who live today in the Columbia river valley and western North America generally.  The physical anthropology of the Smithsonian scientists who insisted it was an Asian-shaped skull and not an Amerindian skull seems finally discredited.  Science confirmed what was always overwhelmingly likely all the time, despite the assertions of a lot of scientists. The Smithsonian corrects the record but without any acknowledgement of how misleading its work was.
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