Thursday, February 05, 2004

Science Break... 

The Kennewick Man case took another turn today. This site will give you some background if you are unfamiliar with the case.

Scientists Win Latest Ruling in Kennewick Man Case
The 9,000-year-old remains known as Kennewick Man should be made available for scientific study, according to a federal court ruling. On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of researchers who sued to stop a group of Native American tribes from burying the skeleton, which they claim as their ancestor.
The bones, including a skull, were found on the bank of the Columbia River by two teenagers in 1996, near the town of Kennewick, Wash. After dating the remains to between 8,340 and 9,200 years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the land where the discovery was made, initially turned them over to Native American tribes in the Northwest, who did not want any further testing performed on them. Eight anthropologists then sued to gain access to the remains, claiming that the decision did not follow federal law. Judge John Jelderks agreed, ruling that in order to be eligible under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)--which aims to return museum artifacts to Native American tribes--Kennewick Man must have "a relationship to a presently existing tribe, people, or culture." But because "Kennewick Man's culture is unknown and apparently unknowable," the tribes' request to repatriate the remains was denied. The four tribes--the Colvill, the Umatilla, the Yakam and the Nez Perce--appealed the August 2002 decision.
I have a BS in Anthropology. I wrote several papers on Kennewick Man while I was in college. The case cuts to the heart of the ever present conflict in modern archaeology. There is a delicate balance between the need for scientific research and the respect for the human remains of Native Americans. NAGPRA attempted to define that balance and helped rid the archaeology community of its grave robber image.

Kennick Man might change all of that. By law,any remains dated before 1492 are classified as Native American and are therefore subject to repatriation. Kennewick Man dates to around 7,000 BC. The problem lies in Kennewick Man's skeletal structure. He does not appear to share characteristics of modern Native Americans. His features share commonalities with modern South Asians and Caucasians. Is he an anomaly or do we need to restructure current theory in the peopling of North America?

This fight is far from over. It's going to get very nasty before it's done.