Bones of contention

The ongoing debate over where the first Americans came from has anthropologists battling with Native Americans, white supremacists and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Topics: Native Americans, Books,

Bones of contention

While researching her book “Bones: Discovering the First Americans” in 1999, Canadian journalist Elaine Dewar came across a mystery. She couldn’t figure out why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was so anxious to stop scientists from examining a human skeleton that had recently been discovered on Corps property near Kennewick, Wash. None of the Native American tribes in the area had yet laid formal claim to the remains under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires the return of all Native American remains found on federal lands to their local descendants (if any).

But almost as soon as the Corps heard that a preliminary carbon date on the bones had come in at about 8,400 years before present (or B.P., the standard notation scientists use for dates derived from carbon isotopes), they sent local law enforcement to seize the skeleton (which came to be called “Kennewick Man”) from the forensics laboratory where it was being investigated. They even went so far as to methodically bury the site of the find — at considerable taxpayer expense — under tons of boulders and riprap, effectively preventing any further excavation. Why?

It wasn’t as if the U.S. Army had suddenly gotten religion. They certainly didn’t believe the local tribes’ stories about the restless spirits of unburied Native Americans causing harm to the living. They were even less likely to be sympathetic to Native American fury with the incautious anthropologist studying the skeleton, who had dared to say in an interview with the New York Times that it appeared to him to be “Caucasoid” and not related to modern Native Americans at all. No, the Corps of Engineers wasn’t stampeded by cultural huffs or woo-woo superstitions. So, Dewar surmised, there had to be another reason for the haste, the cops, the anti-scientific overkill.

At first she thought it might have something to do with a couple of federal facilities in the area: the Hanford nuclear plant and the Umatilla chemical weapons depot. “I wondered whether the Army was afraid that the soil was contaminated and that’s why they covered it up,” she writes in one of the early chapters of “Bones.” But so much attention had already been drawn to the site, and there had been enough examination of the skeleton (and the detritus that still clung to the bones) that any contamination couldn’t have been kept secret for long, no matter who had possession of the remains.

So Dewar turned to the question of stakes. What did the skeleton represent to the Corps, the scientists, the sovereign tribes of the region? Why were the bones so important? She finally discovered why the Army needed leverage with the local Native Americans, and why they effectively took the skeleton hostage. The Corps knew that when they seized Kennewick Man they seized control of the politically valuable tale the bones could tell about the nature of the earliest inhabitants of North America.

The primal story in any culture’s arsenal, especially these days, is the one that might be titled “Who’s on First?” These are stories that support a particular people’s claim to power on the basis of their eternal ownership of a particular territory or, failing that, by proving that they possess some ascendant virtue that entitles them to displace the first squatters from a given patch of land. Much of the Old Testament, for example, tells of the battles undertaken by God’s Chosen People to evict various indigenous tribes from the Promised Land, battles that, in another form, are still tearing the region apart today. It’s not surprising, then, that the geography of human origins and migrations has become one of the most contentious areas in paleoanthropology, which attempts to explain the anatomical and cultural history of mankind.

“Bones” tells its own confusing, problematic story of the competing scientific theories regarding the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. And, according to Dewar, “competing” is the right word for it. She maintains that scientists cling to their own preferred stories with all the tenacity of clashing Biblical tribes. They defend their intellectual territories with weapons that should be limited to logic and hard evidence, but sometimes extend to less legitimate cudgels, like personal animosity, privileged access to research money or even outright fraud.

It doesn’t help that some of the earliest physical anthropologists in North America were, as Dewar puts it, “virulent racists,” intent on justifying European conquest of the continent. The huge collection of Native American remains held by the Smithsonian Institution was founded upon thousands of skulls that piled up when the surgeon general of the U.S. Army instructed troops fighting Indians on the Great Plains to cut off the heads of the dead and ship them to Washington for study. The intent was to prove by measurement and comparison that Native Americans were inferior to Caucasians.

Given that history, it’s easier to understand the general Native American aversion to the anthropological study of their ancestors’ remains, even leaving aside each tribe’s specific religious beliefs about the proper treatment of their dead. And easy, too, to understand the concern and even outrage many Native Americans felt when Kennewick Man was purported by James Chatters, the first to study the remains, to be “Caucasoid” in character, possibly more related to prehistoric Europeans than to modern Native Americans. As anthropologist Alan Goodman wrote in the October 1997 edition of the American Anthropological Association Newsletter, Chatters’ “inappropriate” racial classification of the remains led to “white supremacists … finding support for their ‘Caucasian genes-equals-civilization’ scenarios.”

Stephen McNallen, a former member of the Viking Brotherhood and more recently a founder of a group calling itself the Asatru Folk Assembly (both groups are dedicated to reviving a form of Norse religion), read that “Caucasoid” description in the New York Times and promptly demanded the bones, claiming Kennewick Man as his people’s ancestor. He maintained that the remains were proof that Caucasians came to the Americas before the people now known as Native Americans, justifying his idea that present-day whites have a more legitimate — or at least a longer-standing — claim to the American continent than the people who were living on it when Columbus arrived.

Even before this, many Native Americans had been hostile to any suggestion that they had not always lived on the land they occupied. Some were even moved to repudiate what is known as the “Beringian Walk” theory, which holds that Native Americans first came to the Western Hemisphere during the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, over a land bridge that then existed across the Bering Sea, between eastern Siberia and western Alaska. According to Dewar, many Native Americans believe the story of the Beringian Walk is “ridiculous” and that it was invented to make them look like “just another group of immigrants,” undermining their primary claim to the land.

Dewar is sympathetic to this view, and her sympathy leads her to spend a great deal of “Bones” discussing evidence that she thinks disputes the “Beringian Walk” theory and a corollary of it known as “Clovis First.” Clovis First holds that the earliest immigrants to North America were members of a Paleoindian culture that arrived in the Great Plains no earlier than about 11,500 B.P. and made a certain kind of arrow point first found near Clovis, New Mexico.

Dewar’s contention is that there is a scientific conspiracy afoot against people who come up with evidence that calls these theories into question. She claims that the work of “dissenters” is being unfairly dismissed or sabotaged by the scientific establishment, which she equates with upholders of Beringian Walk and Clovis First orthodoxy. The suppression of contrary evidence, she says, has huge ramifications for Native Americans, who have major spiritual and political stakes in how their New World origins are explained.

It certainly makes a good story — lonely scientific Davids supporting the birthright of native peoples vs. a monolithic conceptual Goliath intent on devaluing or displacing them. But in seeking scientific drama, Dewar overlooks research and explanations that many scientists believe can reconcile the Beringian Walk with the newer evidence she claims disproves it.

“Juicy journalistic anecdotes or innuendoes can be pulled out of all scientific hats,” says Jacques Cinq-Mars, an anthropologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quibec, who has done extensive field research in far northwestern Canada, an area that is called “eastern Beringia” in scientific literature. But he thinks that such conspiracy theories tarnish the general public’s perception of science, and muddle its understanding of how scientific consensus is formed — and reformed.

Cinq-Mars doesn’t perceive any immovable colossus of universally accepted theory standing astride the field. In fact, he says, “the ‘Peopling of the New World’ aficionados are in a state of disarray,” and “there is an ongoing rush on the part of many to switch ships.” Some scientists want to jump off the Beringian land bridge and grasp at alternative theories that Cinq-Mars calls “floating straws,” such as a newer coastal migration model that envisions Paleoindians paddling lickety-split down the west coasts of North and South America, or a trans-Pacific theory that — shades of Kon-Tiki — sees Polynesians sailing to Peru thousands of years before they made it to Hawaii.

It’s true that the Clovis First and Beringian Walk theories were once virtually sacrosanct. In the latter 19th and early 20th century they seem to have been respected as much for saying what the white and powerful wanted to hear as for representing any objective, provable truth. And they were so confidently promulgated by leading scholars that they sailed into the scientific mainstream — and museum dioramas and school curriculums — as a kind of secular gospel, with, at that time, relatively little hard evidence to back them up.

As hard evidence has accumulated over the years, some leaks have appeared below the waterline of that faith. Yet there’s really no need to look for a life raft — or a Polynesian outrigger — to save it. The Beringian Walk theory isn’t sinking as Dewar contends, but it is undergoing extensive repair, which can be a confusing, inconvenient process for the people on board.

The evidence and basic arguments Dewar covers (challenges that I call “Too Much Too Soon,” “Turd Worms,” “No Exit” and “Three Thousand Faces of Eve”) are all too weak or too readily explainable to require abandonment of the Beringian Walk theory.

Too Much Too Soon

While the onetime existence of the Beringian land bridge isn’t being seriously challenged, the question of when humans first plodded across it certainly is. In particular, the Clovis First idea, which essentially claims that the migration from Siberia couldn’t have occurred until around 12,000 B.P., is very much adrift these days because of the growing evidence that humans established communities from the Yukon down to the southern tip of South America at much earlier dates. Jacques Cinq-Mars excavated a series of caves in the Yukon and uncovered a tool made from mammoth bone that appears to have been buried a little less than 25,000 years ago. In far south Chile, American archaeologist Thomas Dillehay, working under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, found a human settlement that made sophisticated use of a wide variety of plant materials at least as early as 12,500 B.P. Some sites in eastern Brazil seem to date from even earlier.

That’s why many paleoanthropologists are starting to believe that the first migration from Siberia to the New World must have happened at a much earlier date than was previously believed, maybe around 40,000 years B.P. Other, more radical theorists are beginning to think that there might have been an initial movement across Beringia (if not into the interior of North America) much, much earlier, even back to the days of archaic humans — an idea that would delight the Native Americans who claim to have “always” been here. New research on the Siberian side of the land bridge, particularly in Northern China, seems to be supporting the way-back dates by demonstrating that even in very early times, humans were able to adapt to extraordinarily inhospitable environments.

Turd worms

In the early 1980s, Brazilian parasitologists Luiz Ferriera and Aduato Arazjo discovered what they believed were hookworm eggs in human coprolites — a.k.a. fossilized poop — from archaeological sites dating well before the arrival of Columbus. The life cycle of hookworms requires a period of incubation in warm, or at least temperate, soils. If the New World was populated via the Beringian land bridge, the cold earth of the tundra supposedly would have acted as a kind of cold-weather filter keeping out hookworms and other tropical parasites. So if those parasites can be shown to have infected Native Americans before Europeans arrived, the worm must have come straight from a tropical climate in Asia or Africa to the tropics of the New World, not passing through the Frozen North.

Even leaving aside the possibility that the worm eggs Ferriera and Arazjo found might not be human parasites at all, or were misidentified (as at least one researcher has contended in a published response to their claims), there was another possibility. Depending on when we want to assume that humans and their intestinal worms might have crossed Beringia, the weather up there could have been far from frozen.

When the glaciers were melting at the end of the last Ice Age, a time-frame considered likely for a Beringian migration (even by those who believe that some Paleoindians or pre-modern humans may have come across much earlier), “there were periods warm enough to bring tropical fauna north as far as Maine,” says Greg Laden, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota. “I myself once recovered a tropical form of a razor clam in Boston in sediments that would date to some time in this period.”

Laden also points out that the possibility of individuals harboring intestinal parasites across a warmer, wetter Beringia — or perhaps even carrying them in semi-dormant or precursor forms amidst the dirt of their fireside baggage — is no more difficult to contemplate than the idea that the parasite made it across the endless Pacific in an open boat, among people who were probably dumping their wastes into the briny deep.

No exit

The most romantic scenario in the Beringian Walk theory has the intrepid First Americans trekking down the Mackenzie River valley of Canada around 12,000 years B.P., in view of towering walls of blue-white ice on either side (a story with an entertaining hint of Moses and the Red Sea). Without this “ice-free corridor” snaking along between the mountainous glaciers, the Paleoindians couldn’t have moved down from Beringia to make their arrowheads in Clovis at the right time.

Alejandra Duk-Rodkin, a geologist with the Canadian Geological Survey, and her colleague Don Lemmen researched the geological record along the so-called “Mackenzie corridor” (which wasn’t in today’s Mackenzie River valley) and concluded that there was no navigable route from north to south at any time between about 30,000 B.P. and 11,000 B.P. If that path didn’t exist, Dewar notes triumphantly, the first New World immigrants would have had to have come from somewhere other than Siberia.

But it ain’t necessarily so. If the earliest Americans were already over the land bridge and into the Americas by around 40,000 B.P., as some Beringian Walk theorists think, “there would have been plenty of room and time for Beringian people to squeeze through the slowly expanding ice sheets,” says Cinq-Mars. Duk-Rodkin might be a good geologist, but even experienced anthropologists can’t make definitive statements about what terrain and climates a sturdy, mobile and cold-adapted people might have been able to live in or negotiate.

And, Cinq-Mars points out, “the geological record is very spotty,” so the chronology of the glaciers and their interaction over the corridor is “imprecise.” The only formal theory that the Duk-Rodkin research really calls into question is the Clovis First model of migration. The Beringian Walk itself, Cinq-Mars says, remains a “sine qua non.”

The 3,000 faces of Eve

The NAGPRA regulations that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cited in spiriting away the Kennewick Man skeleton from James Chatters’s laboratory require that an effort be made to identify the “affiliation” of ancient remains to a contemporary tribe, so the deceased can be appropriately “repatriated” to his descendants. The problem with this provision, of course, is that it is often devilishly difficult to make that determination, and was especially so in the case of Kennewick Man.

One relatively new branch of research that undertakes to prove or disprove tribal connections is the examination of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), a kind of genetic material that can only be inherited from the mother’s line. Beguiling Biblical echoes turn up in the theory that everyone alive on on earth today contains some small element of mtDNA from a single female ancestor who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. She’s known as the “Mitochondrial Eve.” Molecular biologists have been working for about 15 years to sort out the threads of mtDNA inheritance, hoping to be able to trace the genetic history of mankind and, not incidentally, track the dispersal of humans across the planet.

Research has tied modern Native American mtDNA to several basic lineage groups known as A, B, C, D and, in later samples, X, a type of mtDNA that so far remains undetected in modern central Asian populations. Dewar takes the fact that X is not found in Asia these days as confirmation that at least some ancestral Native Americans had to have come from somewhere other than Asia. But mtDNA mutates fairly quickly, and lineages can die out easily, since they require unbroken lines of female descent. If a few women carrying the X marker crossed into the New World and reproduced there while the women of that lineage left behind in Asia (if any) had few or no daughters, it is perfectly possible that Asian populations would not demonstrate that marker today.

But in any case, investigation of Kennewick Man’s mtDNA was one of the casualties of the Corps of Engineers’ abrupt termination of the scientific examination of his remains. The laboratory that was attempting to tease out his genetic profile was ordered to cease and desist when the Army seized the skeleton, and later attempts to extract mtDNA from the limited amount of bone the Army permitted scientists to analyze were unsuccessful.

Before mtDNA became a favored method of researching lineages, the most common way scientists attempted to demonstrate the affiliation of prehistoric remains to a modern population was to compare the measurements of the bones of the old skull to those of modern human beings. Scientists assumed a genetic link where characteristics matched and a discontinuity of lineage when they didn’t. This method assumes that it is possible to differentiate genetic lineages precisely enough, working just from the characteristics of bones, to be able to say that a given skeleton was a definitely a member of a particular “race,” or could only have come from a particular part of the prehistoric world. That’s a tricky and possibly invidious proposition.

Among careful scientists, such measurements and comparisons can be very useful in assembling “big picture” concepts of migration and descent, but they also offer laymen a golden opportunity to distort the scientific stories to serve their own ends. So the leader of the Asatru Folk Assembly can use the legitimate idea that certain facial features “cluster” in particular geographic areas to claim that the characteristics of the Kennewick skeleton are too “European” for him to have been related to modern Native Americans.

The science of skeletons doesn’t support such a simple conclusion, of course. For example, it’s not necessarily true that a “Mongoloid” kind of bone structure was dominant in the first prehistoric groups to cross into to the New World. In fact, C. Loring Brace, a craniofacial expert at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has shown that the faces and skulls of many New World skeletons are closer in configuration to those found in Europeans than they are to faces and skulls found in central Asians. But that’s not because the first Americans paddled over directly from Europe, as the Asatru Folk Assembly prefers to believe, but because the genes of the earliest European inhabitants apparently spread eastward across northern Asia hundreds of thousands of years ago.

According to Brace, the “Mongolian” component of Native American inheritance might have been a later adaptation or it may have been an admixture to the people who first crossed into the New World, people he thinks are more properly called “Eurasian.” So the fact that Kennewick Man’s cheekbones are unlike the cheekbones of pre-historic skeletons found in Lower Mongolia doesn’t prove that Kennewick Man’s ancestors didn’t come over the Bering land bridge. Neither are the facts that his face is narrow and that his jaw curves like some Europeans’ any proof that he is completely unrelated to the Native Americans who live in the Kennewick area today. Nevertheless, the lack of mtDNA and the disconnects between Kennewick Man’s appearance and the physical characteristics of the modern tribes in the area has been significant in the political and legal struggle that is still going on regarding the remains.

Soon after the Corps of Engineers snatched Kennewick Man and put him under lock and key with the announced intention of immediately repatriating him to the Native American tribes who claimed him as an ancestor, a coalition of scientists (including Loring Brace) sued the government for the right to keep studying him. So the supposedly imminent repatriation was put on hold. Ironically, the Department of the Interior then hired a team to comprehensively study the skeleton in an effort to make a more precise scientific determination of its relationship, if any, to the local tribes, so they would know who to give him to when the time came. That was their story, anyway, and they were sticking to it.

But as Dewar discovered, the scientific examinations were curiously drawn out, and the announcement of the results didn’t appear for a very long time. The delay, it seemed, had an interesting relationship to the Army’s progress on a chemical weapons incinerator which had to be up and running in time to comply with international agreements mandating the destruction of the Umatilla depot’s inventory of sarin, VX and mustard gas by 2004.

The government understandably didn’t want any sand in the gears of this huge project. The Umatilla Indian tribes were major stakeholders in the area, and their status as sovereign entities made them especially powerful. In March 1996, the Umatilla filed a letter objecting to the Army’s environmental impact statement on the planned incinerator, and a government representative was assigned to negotiate a letter of agreement that would answer their concerns. That negotiation was underway when Kennewick Man was found, and he instantly became an important, if undiscussed, bargaining chip.

In the beginning of the wrangle, the Army might really have intended to immediately repatriate the remains as a way to gain the tribe’s good will in the negotiations. But it’s more likely that they were only anxious to maintain their own control over the skeleton, to at least keep it subtly in play during the incinerator negotiations and beyond. If keeping Kennewick Man in legal limbo was one of the Army’s means of leverage, the filing of the scientists’ suit was something of an inadvertent gift.

Eventually, though, the Department of the Interior was required by the court to render a decision on whether the plaintiff scientists would be allowed to study Kennewick Man. When Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior, gave his answer in the fall of 2000 — more than four years after the discovery of the remains — the chemical weapons incinerator was not yet complete and there was still some uneasiness about it being derailed or delayed by political or legal agitation.

Babbitt declared that without a successful extraction of mtDNA, the other scientific evidence couldn’t tie Kennewick Man to any modern tribe or group of tribes in the area. Even cultural evidence — the Indians’ own “Who’s On First?” stories, in effect — couldn’t establish the current tribes as his descendants. However, a second carbon dating undertaken during the government’s examination had confirmed that Kennewick Man was indeed many thousands of years old. That, Babbitt said, was pretty much all he needed to know. He fell back on the argument that, as he read the NAGPRA statute, any remains with dates prior to 1492 were by definition Native American, and therefore the ancient skeleton could not undergo any further scientific study.

But that didn’t mean Kennewick Man would be instantly handed over to the Native Americans; luckily he would have to remain in the government’s possession while the further question of the scientists’ suit was settled. In turning the scientists’ case over to trial following the Department of the Interior’s decree, the judge particularly questioned the legal sturdiness of Babbitt’s contention that a “pre-1492″ date was all that was needed to prohibit any further study of the bones. The scientists’ attorneys maintain that the statute doesn’t actually say any such thing. It was, they say, only Babbitt’s interpretation of the law’s intent that led him to that conclusion.

A court case is like a story-telling competition. Each side tries to compile the most compelling saga of justice denied, and spin a convincing tale of the dire consequences if the question isn’t decided their way.

The scientists in the suit claimed that reburying Kennewick Man would deprive the world of the essential knowledge locked up in his bones. Advances in technology might make it possible to extract information from him in the future that couldn’t even be imagined now. Although pure knowledge was valuable for its own sake, continued research on the remains might even result in practical applications for human health and world ecology someday. No one could know.

The tribes argued that Kennewick Man’s spirit had been disturbed by his exhumation, and that it was an affront to the laws and customs of the sovereign Native American nations — not to mention a violation of historic treaties — to continue to keep him in a drawer in a lab, or on a shelf like a trophy, now that his age was known. How would you like it, they asked, if someone dug up your grandfather’s body without permission and stuck it on a specimen tray for undergraduates to tell macabre jokes about (perhaps wiggling the jaws to make him “talk”) or for total strangers to pick over, like a cut of meat in a supermarket display?

Final arguments in the case were heard in June of 2001, and we are still awaiting the judge’s decision. But it would surprise no one if the case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The Umatilla chemical incinerator will be finished and destroying sarin long before the ancient hostage is released.

Juno Gregory is a freelance writer and book doctor who lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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