Ancestral Bones

15 February 2004

Preserving the Evidence

By Gwynne Dyer

“We should be learning from skeletons, not reburying them,” said Dr. Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge, England. “They are the remains of people still contributing to humanity and its knowledge of itself.”

Foley’s remarks were triggered by a recommendation to the British parliament to create a national advisory panel to decide on the return of bones from British museums to various aboriginal groups, especially in Australia and North America. But the case that really mattered was the one before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon, where the eight-year struggle over the fate of Kennewick Man was settled (more or less) in mid-February by a ruling that science is more important than people’s feelings.

There were strong feelings on both sides. “If I could do handstands, I would do handstands,” said Paula Barran, one of eight anthropologists who went to court in 2000 to dispute a US government decision to hand over the archaeological find of the century — an almost complete set of human bones found in the Columbia River in 1996 that were 9,300 years old — to the local Indian tribes for ‘reburial’ without any proper scientific examination.

Many Native Americans, however, feel raped by the judgement. “(The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)…gives tribes the right to prevent the study of remains,” said Rob Roy Smith, lawyer for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “What the 9th Circuit seems to have done is to require the tribes to prove the remains are Native Americans before the statute applies.”

Fair enough, you might reasonably reply. If the bones aren’t really their ancestors, why should they have any right to demand anything? But this is to ignore how mythology has mutated into ideology in the minds of many Native Americans. As far as they are concerned, any ancient human remains in North America are their ancestors, because they have always been there.

The trend for museums to return human remains to the people who care about them has grown fast in recent years, and for the most part it is entirely positive. When Manchester Museum handed over a collection of Aboriginal skulls to the representatives of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action two months ago, it was overdue apology for the cruelty of 19th-century British grave-robbers who dug up the bones of only recently dead Australian Aborigines in an outbreak of amateur anthropology.

The same goes for the recent decision of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to return the bones of Haida Indians that had been dug up by an American expedition to Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands in the early 1900s. So far, so good. But Kennewick Man?

There is no human being on Earth who can say with any confidence who his or her ancestors were 9,300 years ago, or where they lived, or even what language they spoke. The claim that the four tribes who live in the Columbia River basin today are in any meaningful sense the descendants of the middle-aged man who died with a spear in his guts 9,300 years ago on the banks of the Columbia is simply incredible. There has been far too much coming and going in human history, too many invasions and migrations and victories and defeats. So why is the claim made at all?

Many, perhaps most aboriginal peoples have creation myths that explain how they have always had an intimate relationship with the land they now occupy. Yet it is most unlikely that their ancestors always lived where they do now, and in the case of Native Americans it is literally impossible: there were no human beings in the Americas until the first of the migrations across the Bering Straits, probably no more than 14,000 years ago.

In a radical younger generation of Native Americans, however, myth often becomes ideology and dogma. There were no migrations; we really were always here; we are not just the descendants of an early wave of immigrants who eventually got overwhelmed by later waves. It is a position based on pride and desperation, not on history, and as such it is completely understandable. But when it is used as a basis for laying claim to 9,000-year-old-bones and denying scientists access to them, it is not defensible. The court got it right.

We live in an extraordinary period when scientists are finally piecing together the true history of the human species: where we come from, how we spread across the planet, even what kind of animal we really are. It is an important project, and we need all the evidence we can get. It does not rely on the remains of those who have died in the past few hundred years, and those remains should be returned to their people if they can be identified. Normal human respect for the dead demands it.

But handing over truly ancient bones to the people who were the local inhabitants just a couple of centuries ago, as the US Department of the Interior tried to do in 2000, is political cowardice and political correctness run mad. The court made the right call, and with any luck it will establish a lasting precedent.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “The trend…Kennewick Man)