Whose Bones Are They, Anyway?

Karen Wright, a science journalist, has written for Scientific American, Discover, Nature, Science and the New York Times Magazine

Inside a warehouse laboratory near Carson City, Nev., the remains of one of the oldest known North Americans lie curled in a loose fetal position on a raised platform, covered with a heavy plastic tarp. For a 9,400-year-old, Spirit Cave Man is remarkably well-preserved: He has most of his teeth, patches of long, reddish-brown hair on his head and some skin, more like thin parchment, on his bones. His feet are wrapped in their hide shoes, and his body is cradled by the woven hemp-and-rabbit-skin blanket he was buried in.

Life could not have been easy for Spirit Cave Man. Spinal deformities gave him arthritis and a limp, a blow to the temple cracked his skull and the tooth abscess that probably killed him ate a hole through his cheek first. But death hasn’t been a cakewalk, either. Unearthed in 1940 from a desert cave to the east, the mummified body was held in storage at the Nevada State Museum until the mid-'90s, when radiocarbon dating revealed its extraordinary antiquity. Now that body and those of several other vintage Americans are caught in a legal tug of war between the confused spirits of science and faith, a contest that was revisited this weekend, when archeologists convened in Santa Fe for a powwow on the peopling of the New World.

The battle for custody of the oldest Americans began with the discovery, in 1996, of Kennewick Man, the 9,300-year-old skeleton found along the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state. Legislation enacted in 1990 requires that Native American remains and artifacts found on federal lands be returned to the tribes they belong to. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in part to redress patently noxious practices such as grave robbing, which unscrupulous archeologists resorted to in the past. As a result of the law, thousands of skeletons have already come out of museum closets. The great majority are less than 2,000 years old and of clear tribal affiliation.

But Kennewick Man is a special case. He belongs to an elite group of New World skeletons more than 8,000 years old, a group that at present has no more than 10 members. The ancestry of these individuals is a subject of hot dispute among scientists. Reconstruction of facial features based on skull shape suggest that Kennewick Man, Spirit Cave Man and several of their cohorts more closely resemble the Ainu race of Japan and the peoples of the South Pacific than modern Native Americans, who are largely descended from Mongolian stock. This evidence, as well as linguistic comparisons, DNA analyses and recent archeological finds, has led many researchers to conclude that human beings first entered the New World between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, and that successive waves of migrant populations wiped out or assimilated the earlier emigres by making love or making war.


Citing this model, anthropologists argue that truly ancient human remains aren’t necessarily related to existing Native Americans and so should not be repatriated to local tribes without further study. They point out that DNA testing of these remains, which they are eager to conduct for their own purposes, would also settle the issue of tribal affiliation. But many Native American groups object to “consumptive” procedures, like DNA tests and radiocarbon dating, that require the destruction of small amounts of bone, hair or marrow. Scientific methods, they say, are an unnecessary and offensive intrusion on their beliefs. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time,” wrote Armand Minthorn, religious leader of the Umatilla tribe in northern Oregon, in a statement released shortly after Kennewick Man’s discovery. “Some scientists say that if this individual is not studied further, we, as Indians, will be destroying our history. We already know our history.”

Such declarations of faith are anathema to people who thrive on rational inquiry and reproducible results. "[A] claim based on ‘spiritual’ grounds should not be subject to legislation in a nonsectarian society,” wrote one archeologist in an abstract for the New Mexico conference. But the pursuit of knowledge isn’t sacred, either. In our society, there are principles, such as the right to privacy, that are held to preempt the right to know, and there are arenas in which knowledge is deemed secondary to meaning.

Many regular folks find scientific stories of origins--the peopling of the Americas, Darwinian scenarios of survival or the birth of the cosmos--interesting but ultimately meaningless. Rational ways of knowing are better suited to bridge building than to soul searching. Creation myths are made to scratch the ineffable itch of consciousness--and they work. People tend to get cranky when they’re challenged, especially if the challenging also undermines a group’s claims to territory and restitution, as the current debate might.

Scientific creation stories, furthermore, aren’t as reliable as the rationalists would have us believe. The current mosaic model of the peopling of the New World, for example, is less than a decade old. Until recently, archeologists maintained that humans first ventured here fewer than 12,000 years ago, and that modern Native Americans are the direct descendants of those protopioneers. The paradigm shift coincided, conveniently enough, with passage of the Native American protection act, thereby giving scientists grounds for contesting repatriation of the most valued bones.


Viewed in this light, some of the boundaries between science and faith begin to crumble. Last year, in an essay in Harper’s Magazine, Fenton Johnson recalled the distinction between belief and faith drawn by Zen philosopher Alan Watts. Whereas belief is characterized by rigid certainty, Watts said, faith, like science, requires constant questioning. But neither certainty nor questioning are themselves a source of trouble; rather, the trouble starts when one group uses inflexible ideas to distinguish itself from others. “When communities use belief . . . as a means to establish identity, sooner or later the guns appear,” Johnson wrote.

All human cultures recognize the sanctity of human remains and burial. It’s a deep instinct that can’t, and shouldn’t, be reasoned away, an instinct that predates civilization. The humanity of Spirit Cave Man’s people, whoever they were, is apparent in the care with which he was interred, the placement of his bones, the meticulous twining of fibers in his burial blanket. It’s all too easy to imagine a grief-stricken parent, a bereft child, a sorrowful widow--a culture that honored its dead, just as ours does.

Anthropologists have challenged the repatriation of Kennewick Man in court, and requests for DNA testing of Spirit Cave Man, protested by the northern Paiute, await a decision by the federal Bureau of Land Management. At least one ancient American, 10,700-year-old Buhl Woman of Idaho, has already been reburied. Meanwhile, Kennewick Man resides at the Burke Museum in Seattle, and Spirit Cave Man is stranded on his platform in Nevada. Scientists can’t do tests on Spirit Cave Man, the Paiute tribes can’t rebury him and, because state law forbids the display of human remains, museum visitors can’t see him, either. This purgatory is the most ignoble fate that could befall a body. Out of respect for death and unanswerable questions, both sides in the custody battle should lay down their banners of faith and reason, find a swift resolution to their differences and return these people to the past. *