Science: Bones Of Contention

Native Americans, scientists and Odinists are fighting over the racial origins of a skeleton. Marek Kohn reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As the first census of the next millennium approaches, Americans continue to wrangle over how to break themselves down by race. Many are now voicing their objections to traditional racial categories, which insist that an individual must be black or white, one thing or the other. The most prominent among them is the golfer Tiger Woods, who coined the word "Cablinasian" to encompass his Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian lines of descent. Others are lobbying to be able to check a box labelled "multiracial" on the next census form.

The resistance to this way of thinking runs very deep, as the case of Kennewick Man shows. When his skeleton emerged from the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State in July, he was at first supposed to be a recent murder victim. Sophisticated as its techniques are, the basic job of forensic anthropology is to slot human remains into the pigeonholes used by the police. At first, the Kennewick skeleton looked straightforward enough: Caucasian male, five foot nine, slim build, aged 40 to 55 at time of death. But the appearance of the bones suggested that the time of death might have been long ago. Dr James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist called in to examine the find, conjectured that these might be the remains of a white pioneer who perished in the previous century.

Then Chatters found part of a spear point embedded in the man's pelvis. It was made of stone, and belonged to a type used between 4,500 and 8,500 years ago. Chatters sent a fragment of bone from the skeleton's hand for radiocarbon dating. It clocked in at 8,410 years old, plus or minus 60 years. Kennewick Man was the newest member of one of the most exclusive clubs in American archaeology. Other specimens of comparable vintage could be counted on his well-preserved fingers.

One of them, an 11,000-year-old female from Idaho known as Buhla, has already been ejected from the club. Found in a gravel pit, Buhla was handed over to the local Shoshone-Bannock tribe, who exercised their rights under Idaho law to rebury her. At the national level, such issues are covered by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Nagpra), which gives Native American tribes the right to take possession of human remains to which they can claim links.

Nagpra was framed with museum drawers rather than gravel pits or riverbanks in mind, being intended to redress earlier violations of Native American dignity. Tens of thousands of indigenous remains and artefacts were collected by anthropologists, with no regard for Native American rights or beliefs. Nagpra allows modern Native Americans to claim these items and accord them the spiritual respect they believe is their due. "Scientists have dug up and studied Native Americans for decades," says Armand Minthorn, a religious leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs." Like many other peoples around the world, the CTUIR are adept at turning Western technology against Western values. Minthorn's statement is part of a position paper on Kennewick Man, posted on the Umatillas' website.

Although scientists do not regard research as desecration, the scholarly community has accepted the justice of the principles behind Nagpra. The act is flawed, however, in just the area where Kennewick Man lies. Its lack of clarity reflects a lack of agreement, among those who advised on the drafting, on what to do when the relationship of remains to living peoples was unclear. Buhla was given to a people who may have arrived in Idaho 10,000 years after her death. Kennewick Man might be no more closely related to Armand Minthorn than to James Chatters.

This grey chronological area has proved a congenial habitat for old beliefs. Minthorn belongs to a young generation of Native Americans which has taken up traditional beliefs in an attempt to reassert ethnic identity. This places them at odds with scientists over the question of their origins. Scientists argue that the Americas were populated by migration from elsewhere, almost certainly via the Bering land bridge that once joined Siberia and Alaska. Native American religions, however, teach that the people were created in situ. All pre-Columbian remains must therefore be those of people ancestral to the Native American tribes in whose traditional lands they were found. Scientific comparisons between these remains and physical traits of modern populations are a challenge to the creationist dogma.

The other ancient belief that has thrived in this climate is that of race. Nineteenth-century racial science was a formal arrangement of the Romantic belief that each people - each Volk, in the original German formulation- had its own spirit. Race was understood as essence, and each race was considered to derive from an ideal type. The naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach considered that the "most beautiful" variety of mankind was to be found in Georgia, and so named the "Caucasian" race. His judgement is echoed on police radios every hour of the day, and at every turn in the Kennewick dispute.

The first move in the game was made by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has rights over the river where the skeleton was found. When the radiocarbon dates were announced, the Corps halted further investigations, preventing the completion of DNA tests. It responded favourably to a request for the bones from the Umatillas; in response, a group of eight anthropologists mounted a lawsuit against it. Kennewick Man has remained in ACE custody, and judicial limbo, ever since.

At the same time, he has been turned into a symbol of racial essentialism, and wielded as a weapon by different factions in the turf wars of US ethnic politics. Racing gleefully ahead of the evidence, right-wing commentators have declared that he represents a white race that settled America first, before being exterminated by the Red Indians. Alan Schneider, the scientists' lawyer, anticipates a court case with historic significance comparable to that of the Scopes trial, the landmark judicial victory of Darwinism over Creationism. And then there is the Asatru Folk Assembly.

A number of parties claimed an interest in the bones, but the AFA was the only one to remain in play besides the Tribes and the anthropologists. The Asatruar, as members of the Assembly call themselves, are latter-day Odinists. They have a website, naturally, upon which they expound their vision of heroic Viking values. Theirs is not a universal religion, they explain, but one whose spirit is inherent in North Europeans. Judaism, Islam and Christianity, by contrast, are "alien religions" which arose "among people who are essentially different from us". The Nordic mind and spirit are shaped by evolutionary history as well as the body; the "cultural and biological" survival of North Europeans is thus a "religious imperative".

Despite contemporary adaptations, notably disavowal of the idea of racial superiority, the Assembly is a Romantic, volkisch cult of the type which ceased to be just a joke in the 1930s. Difference, in the Asatru vision, means separateness. The AFA supports "the efforts of all cultural and biological groups to maintain their identity" in the face of mysterious elements it calls the "world-managers".

You get the picture. Yet while scholars have been denied access to Kennewick Man, the Asatruar were permitted to conduct a religious ceremony over what they saw as their Caucasian forebear, complete with bust of Odin and "Thor hammer". ACE officials did, however, draw the line at mead. The Asatruar obliged by using apple juice, apparently an acceptable toast among New Vikings.

With its mixture of the ludicrous and the sinister, the Asatru intervention became an inadvertent satire on the beliefs underlying the dispute. The Odinists gained access to the remains on grounds of religious equality, the Umatillas having previously been permitted to conduct a ceremony of their own. Some anthropologists began to talk about constituting themselves as a religion, whose rites would involve procedures such as DNA tests.

The AFA's volkisch racial world-view is only an extreme formulation of Romantic ideas which still inform both lay and scholarly understanding of human diversity. Romanticism lives on in the assumptions brought to bear upon Kennewick Man. The parts define the whole: if a skull has Caucasoid traits, it is deemed a Caucasoid. If it is Caucasoid, its heritage is assumed to be European.

Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution, and of the scientific plaintiffs in the Kennewick litigation, considers that Kennewick Man's origins may lie in Europe. He is also intrigued by suggestions that early American artefacts, of the so-called Clovis industry, are derived from an older French technology known as the Solutrean. Other scholars dismiss the similarities between the two as coincidental. It is a new instance of an old disagreement. On one side are those who assume innovations occur only once, usually in Europe; on the other are those who consider that different peoples can have the same idea independently.

The latter tendency is also inclined to believe that physical traits can arise independently in different places. In the September issue of American Anthropologist, S O Y Keita and Rick A Kittles note that when anthropologists observed that Khoisan, or Bushmen, often have eyefolds similar to those of Eastern Asians, racial thinking led the scholars to suggest that Bushmen were hybrids of "Negroid" and "Mongoloid" strains!

Nevertheless, when there is a plausible migration route like the Bering corridor, it is reasonable to presume that the physical similarities between Amerindians and Eastern Asians indicate that the Americas were settled by Asians. Nor are the differences between Native Americans and Caucasoids as clear as the Kennewick parties have implied, according to Alan Goodman, writing in the October Anthropology Newsletter. He notes that a 1930 study of Indians by anthropologist Earnest Hooton identified not just "Caucasoid" but "Negroid" and "Australoid" traits, while today's computer programs are sometimes unable to tell Native and European American skulls apart.

The key to Kennewick Man's descent may lie in his teeth. James Chatters observed that these were of a pattern known as "sundadont", whereas a "sinodont" pattern is found in Native Americans. The sundadont form is thought to have arisen in South-East Asia, with the sinodont pattern developing later in China. Sundadonty is found in the Ainu, a people who lived in Japan before the arrival of the ethnic Japanese, and have been considered to have Caucasoid traits. Drawing on her studies of Patagonians and people of Tierra del Fuego, Marta Lahr suggests in her book The Evolution of Modern Human Diversity (Cambridge University Press) that the sundadont southern Asians entered the Americas as well as the northern sinodonts. Kennewick Man - and other very early specimens, some of which have also been said to show Caucasoid traits - may represent this early wave of settlement. If these individuals were still around to fill in the census forms, they would have to check the box marked "Other".

! Links to websites with Kennewick material can be reached via the Race Gallery,