June 19, 2001
9:52 AM   Subscribe

Any paleoanthropologists here? I heard this story on NPR this morning (real audio) about Kennewick Man and the legal action over whether these remains should be studied further or re-buried. What caught my attention the most was that the first scientist to study the remains found the 9,000-year old skeleton to show european characteristics (which was sort of glossed over in the report). I remember seeing something about these anomalous remains in National Geographic some time ago. What are the implications of this? Do we have to rethink the models of human settlement in North American? Or are these merely aberrations?
posted by trox (12 comments total)
I realize this subject was briefly broached before in the comments on another thread, but I think the focus is different enough to warrant a new post If not... *duck* and my apologies.
posted by trox at 9:53 AM on June 19, 2001

kinda sad how everyone involved has been waiting for a decision by the gov't on this for years.
posted by jcterminal at 10:46 AM on June 19, 2001

this has been up in the air for years. i was hoping that there'd have been some sort of decision finally made when i saw the story...but no. =/ (yes, i am a paleoanthropologist!)

i personally don't think it's incredible at all that someone of european genetics made it over to this continent. if the vikings can do it, why not some pre-historic adventurer on a raft? probably via the bering strait.

what BOTHERS me about the whole story is that a) the native americans are trying to insist that the remains can't possibly be anything but native american and so said remains belong to them, b) that the native americans in question refuse to let archaeologists even EXAMINE the remains, c) that the government seized the remains and is keeping them locked up, and d) that the government destroyed (probably intentionally) the site where the remains were found.

it doesn't help my temper any that the native american representative from the kennewick tribe is a complete and utter moron.

i try not to think about things like this too much. my blood pressure can only take so much.
posted by lunarennui at 10:58 AM on June 19, 2001

lunarennui, it does sound like a massive catch-22 for scientific inquiry all around. I seem to recall, however, that have been other finds of the same sort throughout the continent (most recently in South America if I recall--sorry no link to be found). I've always been interested in such things, and a former co-worker of mine was versed in them. Unfortunately, he's not longer with us, and I don't have the education to filter the wheat from the chaff on this issue.

If this and others were of european descent and arrived roughly contemporaneously with those crossing the land bridge, it calls into question all I've ever learned about the Americas being relatively isolated. Who's to say that such back and forth didn't happen throughout history. While I can see native americans taking offense at this culturally (whether correctly or not), I think the larger issue at stake is how we of european descent on this continent view ourselves. I mean, this could certainly take veneration of Columbus and all the other conquerers (er, explorers?) down a bit, since it's no longer really all that remarkable. On the other hand, it could be used as apologia for all the atrocities said explorers perpetrated. The "well we were here at the beginning too" school of thought. I certainly hope for the former. In any case, these are the issues I was wrestling with when I heard the report.
posted by trox at 11:36 AM on June 19, 2001

The mysterious historical origins of the Kennewick man always remind me of Graham Hancock and his theories about a prehistoric global society. I saw one of Hancock's documentaries, and while somewhat disorganized, he makes some fascinating observations.
posted by tcobretti at 11:52 AM on June 19, 2001

The "Caucasian" features of the skull are why this has been a controversy, all along.

From the legal viewpoint, the US government is sort of stuck. Or, rather, the executive branch (which includes Justice, Interior, the Corps of Engineers) is stuck: by act of Congress, any pre-Columbian remains are presumed to be ancestral to the tribal nations whose land they're found on. US law doesn't consider the possibility that this fellow might be European, or directly from southern African, or Australian, or anything other than from the migration over the Bering Strait.

This was the solution to a previous problem, of scientists digging up people's ancestors without permission. Personally, I wouldn't care--I don't know where my that-many-times-great-grandparents were buried. But a lot of people, from a lot of cultures, do care.

I've also heard [this means that the rest of this post is based on vague memory, and I'm less sure of it than of what's above] that at least some of the native peoples of North America have their own weird creationist worldviews. They either really believe, or find it politic to claim, that they were created here, recently, and they're not interested in evidence to the contrary. Or, as they would probably put it, in non-Native scientists' claims to the contrary.

[From here on in, it's pure opinion]: Columbus, Leif the Lucky, or Kennewick Man, they're not the ancestors of today's light-skinned, English-speaking American culture. Kennewick Man may be European, or he may be related to the Ainu, or who knows what--but if he had any descendants, they weren't on the Mayflower, they weren't at Jamestown, and they wouldn't be counted as white by most people today. In that sense, the Kennewick have a point: his descendants, if any, might be Quechua-speaking Nicaraguans, they might be Kennewick, they might be Cherokee, but they probably aren't Anglo-Americans.
posted by rosvicl at 12:42 PM on June 19, 2001

I had a really long post which was fairly similar to rosvicl's (only focused on the consequences of trying to sidestep the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, rather than the potential decendents of Kennewick Man) which would be a bit redundant now. Instead, I'll just say that the Kennewick man story reminds me of Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki theories/expedition. The Kon-Tiki makes me think of tiki bars, which make me think of rum drinks, which remind me that I want to cut out of the office early to go get a good tropical buzz going.

I think Kennewick Man would approve.
posted by CrazyUncleJoe at 12:59 PM on June 19, 2001

I, for one, would be curious to know if there is any way this could be connected with the Mummies of Takla Makan -- though in a remote part of China, the bodies are arguably ethnically European. They are perhaps 3000 years old, and Kennewick man may be 10,000 ... suggesting not, but again, more study is needed.

Native Americans are more defensive of their culture and artifacts because so much has been trampled and lost. That's a shame. Italians aren't worried about the bodies that were entombed at Pompeii, and are now "on display", and I don't think it's for lack of respect for the dead.
posted by dhartung at 2:00 PM on June 19, 2001

As to the "European" features, well, there's a lot of interpretations possible:

The skull of Kennewick Man appears to resemble Polynesians or southern Asians, rather than modern Indians.

I don't buy the idea that prehistoric people crossed the Atlantic. If Europeans came to America, they are more likely to have come via the Asian land bridge than by any other way. The racial make up of Asia 15,000 years ago was very different from the way it is today and there must surely have been several migrations into the Americas from Asia over that time.

Any way, everyone knows that the first Americans were Australian aboriginies.
posted by lagado at 5:22 PM on June 19, 2001

From today's CNN story:
PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) -- American Indian tribes say the skeleton known as Kennewick Man is an ancient descendant and should be buried with respect. Anthropologists say he should be studied first.
"Ancient descendant"? How's that again?
posted by rodii at 7:01 AM on June 20, 2001

Dan, I don't think there's much reason to connect the Kennewick find with the mummies. We know Asia was peopled long before the mummies' time, and people of a "European" type were much further afield than Xinjiang.

I like the Ainu idea rosvicl mentions. I remember hearing in college that the Ainu seemed to have some "Caucasian" characteristics--it seems plausible that, however "European" genes got to Japan, that that wasn't the end of their wandering.
posted by rodii at 7:08 AM on June 20, 2001

...just for the sake of completeness.
posted by lagado at 11:57 PM on June 24, 2001

« Older For all of you who missed the Cold War   |   Drummer Tommy Lee Says Drowned Boy Left Alone Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments