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Policy on human remains hampers new thinking on archaeological finds

Policy on human remains hampers new thinking on archaeological finds
Sunday, December 5, 1999

By SOLVEIG TORVIK
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER EDITORIAL WRITER

SANTA FE, N.M. - Australia has its ancient aborigines, Europe its
Neanderthals, Africa its celebrated human precursor Lucy. But America has
nobody home until the day before yesterday - 13,000 years ago.
At least, that's what we've long been asked to believe.
It's counterintuitive to suppose that early humans turned up their noses at
American real estate for as long as many learned scholars insist they did.
But scholars, unlike the rest of us, are bound by the rules of evidence. And
the evidence of earlier human habitation on this continent has been
non-existent.
Of course, that may be because, until recently, few archaeologists thought
the evidence was there to find. If America's human prehistory is a blank
page, nearsightedness on the part of those who are trying to write it has
been a contributing factor. As Dr. Albert C. Goodyear put it at a recent
archaeological conference in Santa Fe: "You don't look for what you don't
believe in."
Now, as the 21st century dawns, archaeologists and anthropologists are
scrambling to come to terms with mounting evidence that suggests people may
have arrived here much earlier, and from different places, than conventional
wisdom has dictated for most of this century.
The conference, held under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and
the Center for the Study of the First Americans at the University of Oregon,
was the first in 40 years on the fractious subject of the peopling of the
Americas. Turmoil triggered by new discoveries and sharp disagreements about
what they mean served as the backdrop to often archly contentious
proceedings.
As a result of provocative new discoveries that challenge their assumptions,
many archaeologists indicated they've resolved to "dig deeper," literally
and figuratively, into the mystery, and that's a welcome development.
Getting archaeologists to believe in the possibility that people may have
lived here before 13,000 years ago may be too much to ask, given the paucity
of irrefutable evidence. Simply proceeding on the assumption that it's a
serious possibility is good enough for starters. Happily, the profession now
seems poised to think outside the box.
But as ill luck would have it, this seismic shift in archaeologists' mental
approach to human prehistory in the Americas comes just as the federal
government has determined that its duty lies in facilitating destruction of
what little evidence does exist that might allow scientists to shed light on
who came here when.
This is a lamentable congruence of events.
Tantalizing new scientific evidence that suggests humans may have arrived
here in many disparate waves from more than one direction and tens of
thousands of years earlier than commonly accepted is irrelevant, according
to official U.S. policy.
Human remains, even those many thousands of years old, routinely are given
by U.S. Park Service officials to tribes for reburial on the unscientific
assumption that the remains are ancestors of modern Native Americans.
Yet those remains, some of which appear not to resemble modern Native
Americans, may hold invaluable answers to the peopling of the Americas
puzzle.
The likely result of the government's failure to acknowledge that the
prevailing story of the peopling of the continent may be wrong will be that
evidence to support that assertion will be lost forever.
It's bad enough that a good deal of the evidence already may have been lost.
It's worse that it's been by deliberate government design. Some of it has
been buried, both literally and figuratively, on government orders, in Idaho
and Minnesota. And if tribes have their way with Kennewick Man's remains,
soon it may be buried in Washington state as well. That skeleton was found
in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River and is dated as 8,000 to 9,300
years old.
The government's anti-scientific behavior was a chief complaint of many of
the 1,200 conference participants who came to Santa Fe to sort through the
mess that scientists, government bureaucrats, Congress and Indian tribes
have made of human prehistory in the Americas.
It's a complaint well worth making. The government's unreasonable response
to the bitter battle between tribes and scientists for possession of old
human bones - Kennewick Man most prominent among them - threatens to deprive
everyone who lives here, Native Americans most notably, of the truth about
human prehistory on this continent.
The Park Service's human remains repatriation policy "is driven by
expediency," Keith Kintigh, president of the Society of American
Archaeology, charged at the conference. The SAA supports most Indian claims,
he stressed, but culturally unaffiliated remains - that is, those thousands
of years old - should not be treated the same way as those that are more
recent and unquestionably Indian.
He's right.
Decades of offensive behavior by arrogant scientists indifferent to Indian
sensitivities about remains of their ancestors tempt one to say that the
prohibition on research on ancient human remains serves scientists right.
But this isn't about scientists; it's about us. The public has every right
to know the truth, and the U.S. government has no brief to hide it.
Nor does the government have any business promulgating public policy on the
basis of anyone's religious belief. Yet that's exactly what the Park
Service's flawed interpretation of the 1990 Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act has led to. The Park Service says, in
effect, that any human who died here, no matter how long ago, had to be
Indian.
"This view has become increasingly improbable," Dr. Robson Bonnichsen, a
conference organizer and director of the Center for the Study of the First
Americans, told the conferees.
The only survivors of ancient inhabitants, present-day Native Americans,
believe they were the continent's first and only people. That belief is
grounded in religious faith. Many tribes strenuously object to scientific
examination of ancient remains. They say they don't need science to tell
them who these ancient beings were.
But the rest of us do.
Indians have every legal and moral right to rebury remains that clearly are
their ancestors. But they have no right to human remains that are so old
that claims to them have to be taken on religious faith.
Science - in effect, the public - has the right to learn all it can from
those remains.
Ironically, this controversy over ownership of old bones - really a fight
over ownership of the human prehistory of the Americas - comes at a moment
when technology can reveal an astonishing amount about who these people
were.
A little background:
For 60 years, U.S. archaeologists steadfastly have clung to the rubric that
humans didn't arrive on American soil until about 11,000 to 13,000 years
ago. The long-presumptive First Americans were called Clovis because of a
distinctive 11,500-year-old spear point first found near Clovis, N.M. That
same type of point later was found in many places across the country.
Here is the archaeologists' old story line: The Clovis people came from
Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge that joined it to Alaska. Just east of
the Rocky Mountains they found their way south via an opening in the thick
ice sheet that covered most of the rest of the northern continent. Once
inside the borders of the present United States, they hiked west, east and
south as far as Chile.
Trouble is, now there's compelling - though hotly disputed - evidence that a
people whose culture bore no relationship to Clovis already were living in
Chile 12,500 years ago. Recent discoveries suggest humans many have been in
South America 34,000 years ago and possibly even 40,000 years ago, though
evidence for that is hardly conclusive.
In any case, if the First People really didn't get into Montana before
13,000 years ago, it would have been an impressive feat indeed to hike from
there to Chile by 12,500 years ago.
And as for the ice-free corridor, forget about it. The door into what is now
the United States was closed by a huge ice sheet between 30,000 and 18,000
years ago, some geologists have concluded.
If so, then how to explain persuasive indications, recently unearthed by
researcher Steven R. Holen, of human butchering of mammoths on the Midwest
plains 19,000 years ago? If that radiocarbon dating is correct, the First
People would have had to have come down the ice-free corridor before the
door froze shut 30,000 years ago.
And that's just part of the problem with the old story. There's also
evidence that humans were in Pennsylvania perhaps as early as 16,000 years
ago.
Most contentious is the fact that ancient skulls found in Idaho, Nevada,
California, Minnesota and Washington state do not appear to resemble those
of the present-day American Indians long assumed to have been the first
people to inhabit the continent.
The skull in Idaho belonging to Buhl Woman is dated at 10,675 years old, the
oldest date yet for human remains in the country. Her skull, as well as
several others from California, are more Polynesian than Indian, said
Douglas W. Owsley, a respected forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian
Institution. He's part of a group of scientists who have sued for access to
Kennewick Man.
But the Park Service nonetheless deemed Buhl Woman an ancestor to the
Shoshone-Bannock at Fort Hall, and she was given to the tribe for reburial.
And this fall, the state of Minnesota repatriated to a coalition of Sioux
tribes numerous ancient remains found in that state. Among them was
Minnesota Woman, whose striking skull bore no resemblance whatever to modern
Indians, Owsley said. These remains nonetheless were repatriated for burial
by a people who haven't been in the area for more than 1,000 years, he
complained.
Adding to the avalanche of startling new information is the recent assertion
by Dr. Walter Nevis of the University of SUgftildeUao Paulo in Brazil that
an 11,500-year-old skull of a woman that scientists named Luzia - the oldest
human remains yet discovered on the continent - appears Negroid.
Closer to home, experts also have tagged Kennewick Man's skull as of
Japanese Ainu, Southeast Asian or perhaps Polynesian genetic lineage.
Polynesians and Southern Asians may well have traveled along the West Coast
en route south in skin boats, according to adherents of that theory.
None of that is to say that a biological phenomenon scientists call "genetic
drift" could not over time have altered the first Americans' skulls - be
they Polynesian, Southern Asian or whatever - so their descendants would
look as modern Indians do today, some scientists rightly argue. That's just
one more reason to keep ancient skulls accessible for future study with
better tools.
Aside from battles over bones, there's also a heretical theory that those
pesky French - heaven help us - got here first. Projectile points and other
items found both here and on the Iberian Peninsula bear striking
resemblances.
That has led Smithsonian anthropology curator Dennis Stanford to contend
that early Americans were an Iberian-based people scientists call
Solutreans. They hopscotched, perhaps in small boats made out of hides, from
modern-day Spain, Portugal and southwestern France along the icy edge of
southern Greenland and Iceland 18,000 years ago, he postulates. They then
spread down the Eastern Seaboard over six millennia into the American West,
South America and north to Canada. Despite Stanford's eminence, few take him
seriously -- yet.
None of these theories is proven, of course. So what are we to believe?
All of it, provisionally. Science is best served by open minds.
One thing is certain: The ground is shifting dramatically under the feet of
anyone who clings to the so-called "Clovis-First, Clovis-Everywhere" theory
of the peopling of the Americas that has hobbled scientific vision for so
long.
Because so much new information that demands to be taken seriously is
emerging with the advent of new technologies for scientific analysis -- a
single ancient human hair subjected to DNA testing can reveal volumes about
its owner, for example -- it's no longer heretical in scientific circles to
suggest that the Americas were peopled many times by many different folk
from different places. In fact, it's well on its way to becoming what
scientists call the prevailing paradigm.
"There has been a shift in the burden of proof to those who think Clovis was
first," David B. Madsen, an anthropologist with the Utah Geological Survey,
rightly stated.
And with that shift should also come a concomitant shift in the government's
policies for dealing with human remains that, for reasons of great age or
racial characteristics, cannot be affiliated with modern Indians. Government
policy needs to catch up with science.
Unfortunately, there's little sign Congress is willing to correct a profound
flaw in the 1990 law that permits repatriation of unaffiliated remains to
modern tribes.
SAA president Kintigh spoke in support of a "clarification" of the law
pertaining to unaffiliated remains in a measure sponsored by Rep. Doc
Hastings, R-Wash. Regrettably, that bill languishes in Congress.
The 1990 law was passed before evidence of earlier human presence on the
continent had come fully to the fore. So it's a safe bet that most members
of Congress who supported the act didn't understand that they were voting to
bar access to knowledge of America's prehistory. Any responsible lawmaker
should welcome the opportunity to correct such a profound error.
Francis McManamon, the Park Service's chief archaeologist, is the target of
unhappiness among scientists who think he and his agency have misinterpreted
the law. He had his ears warmed by numerous critics at the conference.
After making a game but ultimately unpersuasive case for his agency's
blinkered reading of the law, McManamon told the group, "We'd be happy to
have congressional clarification, of course."
Park Service officials should take the lead in seeking that clarification of
this ill-considered law.



Solveig Torvik is an editorial writer and a member of the Post-Intelligencer
Editorial Board. E-mail: [EMAIL PROTECTED]

 1999 Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
All rights reserved.




Reprinted under the Fair Use http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html doctrine 
of international copyright law.
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