Kennewick Man update

| 15 Comments

For those following the Kennewick Man case, involving attempts by Native American creationists to block the study of a 10,000 year old skeleton discovered in Washington State, there's a new development. As reported by inappropriate response, the Army Corps of Engineers is still trying to interfere with study of the bones. Now, you may recall that, in April of 1998, the Corps, evidently on direct orders from the Clinton Administration*, dumped 500 tons of rocks on the discovery site, destroying any possibility of further excavation.

Now, the Corps is resisting allowing the scientists to remove some of the skeletal material to conduct tests.

In the meantime, the Senate Indian Affairs committee met on July 14 to receive public testimony on the Sacred Lands Act. But the only members of the public who were asked to comment were carefully screened beforehand, and nobody from the scientific/museum committee was invited. Lawyers, representatives of tribes, government agents, were invited, but not representatives of science. There's much to object to in the statements that were admitted--for example, Suzan Shown Harjo, President of The Morning Star Institute (which appears not to have a website), told the committee that "the main policy achievement of the repatriation laws is the recognition that Native Americans are human beings and no longer archeological resources," when that is just the problem with such laws. At some point, a skeleton simply must stop being a relative, and start being an archaeological resource, and that point has to be more recent than 10,000 years ago. If we may claim the bones of any ancestor, no matter how attenuated, and, wrapping ourselves in self-righteousness and lachrymose talk of sanctity, destroy these skeletons before scientists can act, then the entire field of archaeology is at risk.

We see here a classic problem of public choice: tribal groups are lobbying hard for changes in NAGPRA which would give them greater power to do just that. Scientists and the public have a serious interest in preserving these skeletons and ensuring that research can be performed on them. But if the scientific community and the public do not act, NAGPRA could be amended in ways which restrict scientific research even further.

You can find more (slightly outdated) information on NAGPRA at the Friends of America's Past website.

*-I can't help pointing out that this runs somewhat counter to Reed Cartwright's characterization of the Democrats as the science-friendly party.

15 Comments

I hereby volunteer my remains to be dug up for scientific study, beginning in 2400 C.E. (by which time my lineal descendents will have forgotten about me).

Good for you! And I volunteer mine beginning the instant I die. My body belongs to me, and I am morally free to do with it what I choose, regardless of the sentiment of my relatives, so scientists need not wait four centuries for me.

“Who’s more anti-science?” is an interesting topic; I suspect it depends very much on the issue under scrutiny. I’ve seen it argued that left-leaning anti-science is more insidious, as right-side anti-science is generally so bleedin’ obvious while things like the Kennewick case and related issues tend to go under the radar. I assume that’s simply a function of molecular biology and school curricula being closer to everyday concerns than, say, archeology. The important thing is knowing it when you see it, wherever it comes from. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of these well-organized efforts to have specific religious beliefs about the past written into laws covering archeological research in this country, and what reporting there is tends to allow the anti-science side to “frame the issue” and distort understanding of what’s at stake here.

My supervisor (Ernie Lundelius) had an amusing story about how the decision on who could be dug up in Sweden was arrived at. Apparently any burial before 1670 (or some such date, I can’t remember the actual date at the moment) is archeological and any burial after that is protected. By interesting coincidence (this is the amusing part) this date is the date of the reformation in Sweden. So it is legal to dig up ones Catholic relatives but not the Protestant ones (who said all decisions in a secular country end up secular!)

“I can’t help pointing out that this runs somewhat counter to Reed Cartwright’s characterization of the Democrats as the science-friendly

It’s a cliche, but “everything is relative”

I don’t know about Reed, but I regard the Democrats as my second-least-favorite major political party.

I’m with Russell.

I might also add that the archeological study of Indian remains is to “science” what the study of Lincoln’s underwear streak patterns is to history.

I can’t help pointing out that this runs somewhat counter to Reed Cartwright’s characterization of the Democrats as the science-friendly party.

Umm, Timothy, all I said was that the Democrats support science education in their 2004 plaform.

I know, I’m just teasin you.

I didn’t realize you had to be a grave robber to support science.

In fact standing up for the rights of the tribes to keep corpses in the ground isn’t pro or anti science. It’s about the rights of people who have lost most of their land, hunting and fishing rights, and more often in the name of progress.

Comment #5578

Posted by Carl Ballard on July 23, 2004 06:36 PM

I didn’t realize you had to be a grave robber to support science.

You mean…I don’t?…Oooo.…uh.…boy is my face red.…

I was thinking that I might like to be dug up after I die, say 1,000,000 years from now, as a complete fossil. I wonder how I could maximize the chances of that happening. Other than not having myself cremated, I wonder how I’d go about deliberately becoming a fossil. Any ideas?

In fact standing up for the rights of the tribes to keep corpses in the ground isn’t pro or anti science. It’s about the rights of people who have lost most of their land, hunting and fishing rights, and more often in the name of progress.

Carl - the law (rightly, in my view) does support the rights of tribes to deal with their own remains and artifacts as they see fit. If that conflicts with scientific interest, too bad for science. What the law doesn’t do is give them control over remains and artifacts to which they have no reasonable claim, or require that the larger society accept as fact claims that are supported by nothing but religious belief. NAGPRA and related laws were formulated to redress past injustices. The fact of having been a victim of injustice isn’t an argument for being granted carte blanche to trample over the rights and interests of everyone else.

Dave S Wrote:

I was thinking that I might like to be dug up after I die, say 1,000,000 years from now, as a complete fossil.

 

New Scientist covered this in their Last Word column a few months ago, let me see if I can find it. Ah, here it is.

So you want to become a fossil? This is admirable, but you have made a bad start. A hard, mineralised exoskeleton and a marine lifestyle would have given you a better chance.… After that it comes down to three things: location, location, location.

Dave S Wrote:

I was thinking that I might like to be dug up after I die, say 1,000,000 years from now, as a complete fossil.

 

New Scientist covered this in their Last Word column a few months ago, let me see if I can find it. Ah, here it is.

So you want to become a fossil? This is admirable, but you have made a bad start. A hard, mineralised exoskeleton and a marine lifestyle would have given you a better chance.… After that it comes down to three things: location, location, location.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on July 23, 2004 9:29 AM.

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