The Fates Of Very Ancient Remains

Very few human remains over 8,000 years old have been found in America. Scientists and Native Americans have waged bitter legal battles for the custody of some of these rare skeletons, while amicably agreeing on the repatriation and reburial of others. Still other remains have rested peacefully in museums for decades.

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Sarah Anzick (in red jacket) places dirt in the grave of the Clovis-age child who was reburied in a public ceremony. Credit: Michael Waters, Center for the Study of the First Americans.
Sarah Anzick (in red jacket) places dirt in the grave of the Clovis-age child who was reburied in a public ceremony. Credit: Michael Waters, Center for the Study of the First Americans.

SUMMER 2017: By Mike Toner

 To some Native Americans, the repatriation and reburial of very ancient human remains is simple justice. To many archaeologists and other scientists, it’s akin to reburying the Rosetta stone. “Every burial is a potential loss for science to learn about America’s past and for Native Americans to learn about their ancestors,” said Eske Willerslev, director of the Copenhagen-based Center of Excellence in GeoGenetics, where studies of ancient human DNA are reshaping what is known about the peopling of the Americas. “But science can no longer ignore the wishes of native communities. If we take a confrontational approach, science will lose. And so will they.”

Earlier this year 8,600-year-old Kennewick Man, whose remains were discovered more than twenty years ago in eastern Washington, was repatriated to the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes, who claimed him as their ancestor. The tribes then reburied the skeleton at a secret location in the Columbia River Basin. The tribes had waged a long, costly, and highly-publicized legal battle to take custody of Kennewick Man under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which they lost in 2004 when the court ruled they could not prove a connection to the skeleton.

But recent DNA analysis by Willerslev’s laboratory in Denmark showed that Kennewick Man genetically resembled today’s Native Americans more than any other living people. Consequently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kennewick Man’s custodians, concluded that he was in fact Native American, and the Corps began the lengthy process of repatriating the skeleton. Wanting to hasten the process, Congress passed a law that expedited the transfer of the skeleton.

The Corps’ conclusion was sharply at odds with the conclusions of earlier studies of Kennewick Man’s skull and stature that showed him to be quite different from today’s Native Americans. Similar differences between DNA and osteological studies have marked other investigations of the most ancient remains.

Excerpt.

Read More in our SUMMER 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: SUMMER 2017 . Browse Articles Excerpts from our last issue, SPRING 2017.

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