A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The discovery of the spectacular bison painted on the ceiling of Altamira Cave by young María Sanz de Sautuola is well known. Her father, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, an educated landowner and amateur natural historian in northern Spain, was first shown the cave by a hunter, who had found it in 1868. Fascinated by prehistoric artifacts he had seen displayed at the Paris World Exposition in 1878, Sautuola began excavating at the cave's entrance the following year. While her father was busy looking down, María, who accompanied him on his forays, wandered into a chamber not far from the cave mouth and looked up. She ran back out, exclaiming, "Look, daddy, oxen!"
Mark Rose is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
Late in 1999, more than 1,000 skeletons of unknown cultural affiliation were "repatriated" from the collection of Minnesota's Hamline University to Sioux Indians. Most of the remains were only a few centuries old, but the group included several extremely rare Paleoindian individuals, including the 8,700-year-old Brown's Valley Man and 7,900-year-old Pelican Rapids Woman. Both of these almost certainly predate the arrival of their tribal claimants in the northern plains. All were subsequently reburied.
Whether or not the future will see more instances of questionable repatriations of early remains will depend in part on the outcome of the Kennewick Man lawsuit--the first major legal test of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)--now underway in Washington State. The case pits the repatriation claims of five Indian tribes against eight renowned scientists' insistence that the Kennewick skeleton merits preservation and study ("A Battle over Bones," January/February 1997 and updates). In contrast to early media reports that the remains were "Caucasoid," a team of independent experts authorized by the court to conduct a preliminary analysis recently announced that the skeleton's features didn't look particularly European or Native American. Instead, they bear more resemblance to East Asians or Polynesians. In January, the team confirmed the original radiocarbon date of 9200 years B.P., and pronounced that the old man was therefore "Native American." This determination was based on the NAGPRA definition that anybody or anything predating European contact and "relating" to Indians within U.S. territory is by default Native American, "irrespective of whether some or all of these groups were or were not culturally affiliated or biologically related to present-day Indian tribes."
Such logic was not only inevitable under the current law, but, according to David Hurst Thomas in his new book Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity, it's all for the best. As curator of anthropology collections at New York's American Museum of Natural History, Thomas has been proactive and outspoken in his support of repatriation and what he calls a "humanistic" archaeology. An evidently compassionate thinker, he clearly recognizes the challenge Kennewick presents to NAGPRA and rises to meet it.
Skull Wars is primarily a historical meditation that surveys the long and winding road of archaeological arrogance, insensitivity, and downright criminality that undermined the reputation of "anthros" among many Native Americans. The rap sheet includes well-known stories, including Franz Boas' callous deception of the young Inuit boy Minik, who was led to believe he was burying his father in Central Park in 1898 when in fact the latter's skeleton was preserved in a drawer at the American Museum. We likewise hear about Alfred Kroeber's checkered relationship with the "last wild Indian" Ishi, which ended with Ishi's brain being stolen and stashed at the Smithsonian. All this history is advanced to lend context to the genuine anger and mistrust of archaeology on the part of many Native Americans. Of course, few today, least of all the eight scientist-litigants in the Kennewick suit, would argue that anybody's father or recently deceased informant should be macerated and preserved in a museum. Yet if the current legal response goes too far and hurts research, says Thomas, it is "small wonder."
To his credit, Thomas is frank about one negative effect of NAGPRA: in the short term, some research will suffer. He's also resigned to the problem that the law is implicitly based on the Bering Strait migration model. "Like it or not, scientists must now live with the consequences of late 1980's science" on the original framing of the law. He does not consider the bigger question of whether government should enshrine any scientific model in federal legislation.
When exploring an issue as divisive as Kennewick Man, even-handedness helps. Unfortunately, an entire chapter of Skull Wars is devoted to Native lawyer and provocateur Vine Deloria, Jr., who is not a party to the Kennewick suit, but we only hear once from the attorney for the eight Kennewick litigants, Alan Schneider. And when Thomas summarizes the misgivings of some archaeologists regarding the law, he repeatedly attributes them to fear of a loss of "power," authority," or "clout." While this is undeniably true to some extent, it is likewise arguable that some repatriation advocates, regardless of race, are likewise using this issue to raise their political profiles. Is it conceivable that the scientists litigating Kennewick are acting out of positive convictions every bit as heartfelt as the Native American creationists?
Roger Downey's Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man is a journalistic account of the discovery, the controversy, the personalities, and the promise of future research that raises the stakes in the case. Minor blemishes aside, Downey's short account does accomplish something worthwhile. His discussion focuses not only on the sins of the past, but on the changing tools and paradigms that will inform our future understanding of the peopling of the Americas. After reading the book, all parties in the debate should feel a bit less cocksure of their convictions. Perhaps that's the best place to begin transcending federal fiat and moving toward a compromise with which everyone can live.
Nicholas Nicastro, a writer and archaeologist at Cornell University, produced the 1996 film Science or Sacrilege: Native Americans, Archaeology, and the Law.