Flavin's Corner
3-5-99

The Bones Of The Matter

     Last Friday it was announced that finally, after two and a half years of heated debate, scientists will begin examining the remarkable 9200 year old bones which are collectively referred to as "Kennewick Man."  The scientists will attempt to determine if there is any solid evidence to support claims by various Native American groups that the skeleton represents an ancestor, should not be subjected to further tests, and be reburied immediately.  At issue here is an early description of the skeleton as having Caucasoid features and the demands of the 1990 NAGPRA (Native American Grave and Repatriation Act) which requires the demonstration of "cultural affiliation" between living Native Americans and skeletal remains.  This should have been a no-brainer -- of course Kennewick Man is related to modern Native Americans -- yet, because of misinformation, mishandling, and the continuing battle between science and anti-science proponents, the whole affair became a contentious joke.  Well, it's down to the bones of the matter and at least it'll be over soon. I hope... [Click  here for more.]

     The discovery of the old bones in Kennewick, Washington by two young men in July of 1996 instantly piqued the interest of the local media, but shortly afterwards when it was suggested that the nearly-complete skeleton, with a
stone-point embedded in his hip, was over 9,000 years old, news of the discovery jumped a notch and went national.  Local archaeologist, Dr. Jim Chatters, was the first professional to study the bones of Kennewick Man and being intrigued by certain physical characteristics which reminded him of modern European examples, he used the term "Caucasoid" in his description and gave The New York Times the quote: "I've got a white guy with a stone-point in him..."  As the worldwide media and many agenda-driven groups seized on the fantastic notion of "Europeans" in America 9,000 years ago, Chatters later admitted to regretting that he spoke too quickly.  Sometimes, when we hurry, we all make mistakes.

     A half-dozen Native American tribes (or "Nations") petitioned to have the remains reburied, scientists sought the chance to study this extremely early example of humans in the New World, and most of the trouble extended from
NAGPRA and its tightly worded insistence that human remains which can be shown to have "cultural affiliation" with any modern Native group must be turned over for reburial.  That Chatters later joined with a forensic-sculptor to
"reconstruct" the face of Kennewick Man and came up with someone who resembles actor Patrick Stewart ("Capt. Picard" of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame) surely compounded the confusion.  Even on the floor of the
House, before they embarrassed themselves with the Clinton impeachment, Congress was getting silly and discussing "Europeans" in America 10,000 years ago. [Note:  Actually it was Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo, and she mentioned non-Indians in America "ten centuries ago..."  Apparently she was looking for a way out of certain Native American land and water rights.] Ouch!


Kennewick reconstruction      Actor Patrick Stewart

    I fully expect the scientists currently studying Kennewick Man to determine the fellow to be an ancestor of modern Native Americans.  Whether they can actually show "cultural affiliations" from over 9,000 years ago is a bit of a
reach, as migration and relocation probably makes exactitude with a particular tribe or "Nation" almost an impossibility.  Still, I'm confident he'll be judged paleo-Indian and reburied at some point.  What concerns me is how ignorant and arrogant some are concerning the peopling of the New World.  We've learned so much recently, yet too many cling to religious, nationalistic, creationist, or often logically absurd scenarios to describe the entry of humans into the Americas.  Oh, those opinionated folk use computers, cell-phones, maybe a microwave-oven and perhaps watch cable-television, but approach science as if it's a restaurant and they can pick and choose their favorites.  It's hypocritical, anti-scientific, and simply dumb.  Time only moves one way...

     Many Native Americans have expressed concern about genetic testing and, though I sympathize with their spiritual sense of self and identity, I must admit to ...loving such tests!  Yup, "love" suits best...  Where some find differences, I see similarities, and regard all of us as passengers aboard Spaceship Earth.  The human family may be dysfunctional, but ...it's ours.

     When noted geneticist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza began to amass a comparative blood study in the 1970s, from various ethnic groups around the world, patterns later began to emerge which fit current models in archaeology and
linguistics.  This study went on to enforce our understanding of the emergence of modern humans from Africa 100,000 years ago, their spread into Asia, eventual colonization of Australia at 55,000 BC, and suggested at least three distinct migratory waves into the New World beginning sometime around 35,000 BC.  The results of Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues were astounding. Science had given us a gift of our ancient past most never dreamed of.  I believe, as most do, that these tests show just how close our human family is. [Click  herefor more on Cavalli-Sforza.]

Percentages along top indicate differences in human DNA*

 
*Terms have changed: Bushmen is now San, N. African is Berber, Siberians is N. Turkic, and New Guinean and Australian are grouped as Oceanian.  Above linkage tree based on the work of Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues, 1978 to 1994.

    I suspect some of the misunderstanding surrounding the ethnicity of
Kennewick Man involved, perhaps on some unconscious level, recent reports
of "blond-haired mummies" in China which compounded our incomplete picture
of Northeastern Eurasia in ancient times.  Apparently the "Silk Road" made
famous by Marco Polo was utilized by the historical Tocharians (an alphabet
using folk who represent the last stages of an initial "blond-haired" settlement
in China), now known to have been used in Old Babylonian times and trade
with India, and undoubtedly one of many routes chosen by Upper Paleolithic
migrations, and most likely before that by the earliest modern humans, and
perhaps Homo Erectus before that.  It was a busy "road," for sure!

     There is much we still don't know.  Because of the continued racist ideals
advanced by trouble-makers and mean-people, some scientists have been
reluctant (and who can blame them?) to advance any models as far as how long
it might take a certain population to change skin color, broaden a nose in
warmer climes or narrow it where it's chilly outside, or any other so-called
"racial" characteristics often used to distinguish one group of humans from
another.  A better understanding of these "racial" characteristics would be nice
to know eventually, but it must be remembered that it's not the color of the
skin that's important, ...but the bones of the matter underneath.

drinking more milk,
Rick

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