Monday, June 29, 2015

Kennewick Man

I recently saw a PBS science documentary called "First Peoples" on TV, and the each episode concentrates on a different continent. Rather than start with Africa, the first episode was about the Americas, debating who discovered this place first, and how they traveled here. I remember as a child in school being taught the story of people crossing the land bridge over the Bering Strait and walking south following herds of migrating animals.

However this episode started with the story of Eva of Naharon, a 13,600 year-old skeleton found in underwater caves in the Yucatan. She's a young woman and hunter-gatherer who was buried in the cave by her people. We learn about the discovery of her bones and see reenactments of what her life might have been like. But there's a mystery about how she could be living in the Yucatan, when previous archaeological evidence was that people didn't arrive in the Americas until 13,000 years ago. They then recount the old land-bridge theory, and discuss the Clovis people (named after their "clovis points" technology of making spearheads). To further confuse the mystery, we learn of another skeleton, the Kennewick Man found in Washington state, whose remains have been fought over for nearly 20 years. It was very engrossing, and actually quite topical, for DNA test results have just been published this month.

Originally, the Clovis people were thought to cross the Bering Strait, but got stranded by the huge ice sheets covering Canada, blocking them from traveling south. The theory was that they went no further until the ice melted enough to provide a corridor through which they could walk; then they populated the more temperate regions of the continent and became the ancestors to Native American tribes. (First of all, that theory by itself already has holes in it. Why on earth would the Clovis people just sit there waiting for hundreds of years? They didn't know the ice would melt eventually. Why would they just passively stay in Alaska and not try going back where they came from, even if they couldn't go forward? Stupid, blind scientists.)

But anyway, Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996, and the local tribes wanted him reburied under the federal repatriation laws, and initially it looked like the government was going to do that. But a bunch of scientists didn't want to give up Kennewick man, so they, as private citizens, sued the government. I'm sure they were thinking they were doing something honorable and good, saving the remains for scientific study, but there's a reason that the government passed the repatriation laws in the first place; there was a history of archaeologists digging up Native American bodies (fresh ones, even, not just old ones) and stealing them to put in museums. It was pure disrespect, treating them like their "primitiveness" meant they had no rights to their heritage and history. The Native tribes have every right to feel that the bones of "The Ancient One" are sacred and shouldn't have been disturbed. Your scientific interest doesn't trump their dignity as human beings.

Well the court granted the scientists a period of time to study the bones, and they did do that, later publishing many papers on the data they collected. But then they continued to resist giving the Ancient One back to the tribes. The scientists argued that the body didn't physically resemble the modern tribes, and that the man's diet indicated he was a coast-dwelling guy who hunted seals, and that he must have come from some island (like Japan or Polynesia). This one guy insists that he proved that Kennewick Man was not related to Native Americans, therefore the repatriation law didn't apply and they could keep the remains forever. In fact, the scientists won the lawsuit in 2004, and the government was fined. There are still articles on the internet from the Smithsonian claiming that it was a great victory for science and dismissing the tribal controversy as political.

But then the DNA was tested, and Kennewick Man was proved to be related to the Native Americans. I liked how the geneticist in the episode was very respectful to the Native Americans, and called him The Ancient One, in deference to their feelings. He also promised to help them get back the remains for reburial. In contrast, articles I've found on the internet have the other scientists like Dennis Stanford paradoxically saying they feel "vindicated" by these results. What do you mean? You were totally wrong, and tried to argue that the remains were of a different origin. It sounded like pure phrenology to me, and the episode addressed that, saying the skull was different from modern Native Americans simply because it's been thousands of years of evolution. There's been changes in diet and lifestyle, along with interbreeding with other people. Just because the skull looked different doesn't mean it wasn't their ancestor! Fucking arrogant idiot. I hope the remains get returned and reburied soon. I read that the Washington governor requested that it happen soon; they've been waiting almost twenty years to get their ancestor back.

Anyway, the episode then explained how all the mysteries tied together. Kennewick Man was from the same people who crossed the land bridge. However, instead of just twiddling their thumbs for hundreds of years, it seems that some of them decided to get on boats and sail down the coast. That's how they got south before the ice sheets melted. Smart, see? Then they followed big rivers inland and started spreading out and exploring the Americas, hunting animals as they went and eventually inventing the clovis points for their weapons. And then some populations spread farther south to where Eva lived. These aren't three separate people. They're one people that migrated in different ways, forming their own groups. (It's much like how all our ancestors are from Africa, but they migrated in different waves to different continents, to explore the world.) So that's a very satisfying theory, but it's sad that they could only get to it by lawsuits and causing more anguish to Native people. Sure, the scientists probably think what they did was necessary; that they had to prove the remains were the correct race before they could let them go. However, they could have come up with the proof a different way. The episode also featured a scientist who took ancient soil samples and studied for spores found in animal dung. In her research she discovered that animals were once plentiful in America, then suddenly their population dwindled dramatically (long before white men came) and that it means humans must have been here before the previous theories about Clovis people and the Ice Age. So the scientists did not have to desecrate the remains and start such a bitter fight to reveal the truth. Those guys need to learn about ethics, humility, and diplomacy. Doug Owsley is still trying to discredit the DNA results because he loves his precious Ainu/Polynesian theory. Bastard.

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