aeRoman The Kennewick Man Case 
Flag DE The threat to the scientific study of America's prehistory
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When Europeans first arrived in the New World they found both continents already populated by people speaking vastly different languages and having widely differing cultures. The native population of the Americas also exhibits different physical characteristics from place to place, yet the variations within this population, which ranges from the Arctic to the tip of South America, resemble more closely native Siberians and North Asians (Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) than any other living population. The questions about the origins of the America Indian, therefore, centered on the possibility of the migration of a founder population from Northern Asia into North America, and then southward to all parts of the Western Hemisphere. Since for a long time there was no physical evidence of human occupation in the Americas before some 11,500 years ago, archeologists theorized that the First Americans arrived around 12,000 years ago via a land bridge that connected Siberia with Alaska. Since the arrowheads or spearheads carved in a distinctive manner (i.e. the fluted projectile points) that identify people in America 11,500 years ago were first discovered in 1932 in Clovis, New Mexico, the earliest attested culture in the Americas was known as the Clovis Culture, and the theory that the Clovis people were the founder population came to be known as the Clovis First theory.

As information has accumulated, however, more and more anomalies have appeared to challenge this theory. For example, the oldest Clovis sites are not found in the northwestern part of the United States but in the southeastern part. Also there are problems with the route of migration the founder population would have taken southward down the ice-bound continent. And finally archeological sites in Meadow Croft, Pennsylvania, and in Monte Verde, Chile, have been shown to be older than the earliest Clovis artifacts, thus pushing back the period in which people were in the New World. Some archeologists are now investigating the possibility that the First Americans may have come to America not across a land bridge but by boat along the coast. If true this might help explain the lack of archeological evidence from the remote past, since water levels today are higher than in earlier times, thus covering possible early occupation sites. Many scientists are now examining the hypothesis that several different waves of people entered the Americas by different means over a period that may stretch back as far as 30,000 or even 40,000 years. Also Denis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution and his colleague Bruce Bradley have suggested that prehistoric migrants may also have entered the Western Hemisphere from the other direction, namely across the Atlantic from Europe.

There is indeed evidence that different waves of different people arrived in the Americas before the ancestors of the modern Indian population, because most of the skeletal remains so far discovered in both North and South America older than 8,000 years do not resemble living American Indian populations. Genetic change may explain the differences between ancient contemporary pre-European populations in the New World, but the migration of varied populations remains a strong theory. One thing is certain: the more we know about our ancient forebears, the more complex the remote past appears, indicating that our ancient forebears were far more resourceful and far more adaptive than we had expected. Archeology, therefore, promises to help us better understand the past of the Americas, thus giving us a deeper understanding of our common human heritage.

Science versus Political Myth

There are, however, powerful forces with friends in high places that are determined to prevent us from gaining such understanding by shutting down all scientific inquiry into America's past. This effort is carried on by political entrepreneurs whose purpose is to maximize the political and economic power of Indian groups by supporting a political myth that advances their agenda. Science can be detrimental to anybody's myth. It is therefore argued by the political entrepreneurs that science should not take precedence over folk tradition, religion, and other non-empirical ways of dealing with reality, and that to insist on the priority of science over the others is at best insensitive to other cultures, and at worst a way of dominating and exploiting them. Scientists themselves are also attacked in this assault on rationality, employing a sophistry so old it even has a Latin name, "ad hominem." Archeologists are called "cultural predators," "culture vultures," and, of course, "racists." To silence those who might object, another ancient sophistry is wheeled out, "argumentum ad misericordium," which means an appeal to pity. This technique recalls the history of conquest and abuse suffered by Indians at the hands of the ancestors of today's white population in order to evoke sympathy and guilt as a means by which the political entrepreneurs get their way. What we are dealing with is the combination of multiculturalism, postmodernism, and identity politics as weapons against not only science and scientists, but the basis of that which underlies both science and the law: rational thought itself.

The struggle between rationality and aggressive political irrationality is going on in all the nation's schools around the country, from the most elementary to the graduate level, as well as in cultural institutions such as museums and national monuments. The most highly publicized battle in this culture war is over a 9,500-year-old skeleton discovered in 1996 in shallow water along the shore of the Columbia River near the Eastern Washington State town of Kennewick, and thus called Kennewick Man; this dispute not only reveals the tactics of manipulators of identity politics, but also the influence exerted by the Cultural Left and the extent to which it has penetrated the highest levels of government.

Kennewick Man

When the skeleton was discovered, the Benton County coroner asked contract anthropologist James Chatters to examine the remains to ascertain whether it was the proper subject for investigation by his office. The Caucasoid features of the skull at first lead Chatters to believe that it was the cranium of a Caucasian, and because of the presence of a stone projectile point embedded in the skeleton's pelvis (from a wound suffered long before the subject's death), Chatters assumed he was dealing with the remains of an early pioneer to the Columbia River Valley. The projectile point, however, turned out to be the kind used in the region thousands of years ago, indicating that the skeleton was not that of a missing person or even of a person from our recent past, but rather a valuable archeological find from America's distant past. Archeological finds always attract public attention, and few news stories grab front page space in daily newspapers more than this sort of thing. The Kennewick story was even bigger than most stories of its kind, since the remains exhibited features similar to modern Europeans. In fact a facial reconstruction of the skull reminded one observer of Patrick Stewart, the British actor who played the role of Captain Jean Luc Picard on the popular television series Star Trek, the Next Generation.

Indian political entrepreneurs were infuriated by such talk. As soon as the story hit the nation's papers, a coalition of Indians in eastern Washington State filed a claim for possession of the skeleton, asserting that it was the remains of one of their ancestors. Such a claim is obviously absurd when viewed from a common sense point of view, because the remains do not physically resemble any living Indian population and because they are thousands of years old. Human populations move around, entering and leaving regions over time, merging with one another, and in some cases simply dying out. Given these straightforward facts, how could a group of Indians claim the bones as one of their ancestors? The device they used was a 1990 federal law, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requiring that human remains and cultural artifacts be turned over to any Indian community that can establish "cultural affiliation." Since the intent of the law was to provide the same rights over the remains of one's relatives that other groups enjoy, NAGPRA was never meant to deal with material from remote antiquity. The letter and the intent of the law, however, did not matter to the coalition, nor did it matter to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which demanded possession of the bones from the coroner's office. The Corps was exercising its right to possession because the bones were found on a stretch of river that at the time was under the Corps' jurisdiction. The Corps planned to transfer the bones to the coalition for immediate burial.

The Corps also demanded all records from the coroner's office relevant to the remains in an act that both the county attorney and the coroner regarded as bullying. Moreover the Corps violated the law by not establishing cultural affiliation, a process that requires scientific evidence. Instead, at the demand of the coalition, the Corps refused to let scientists examine the bones and refused to turn over information of any kind until forced to do so by a federal judge. The rationale given for this high-handed action was that any scientific scrutiny would violate the religious sensitivities of the claimants. The excuse given for not requiring proof of cultural affiliation was an arbitrary decision by the National Park Service that any cultural or human remains older than 1492 is Native American, and the willingness of many officials to concede that the closest recognized Indian community to the discovery site of such material is likely to be its owners. Such policies clearly go beyond the intent of the law.

Bureaucratic Collusion

An injunction was issued by a federal judge to prevent the transfer of the bones to the claimants until questions of law could be settled. While in the custody of the Corps, scientists were not permitted access, but Indians were permitted to come and go as they pleased for the purpose of performing religious rites. When some of the bones were found missing, the judge ordered that the remains be sent to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington for safe-keeping.

When the court ordered the government to perform scientific tests to establish the age of the remains and to gain more precise identification of the bones, the tests were performed in a way that led the court monitor for the plaintiffs to characterize the entire operation as "misdirected science." Carbon 14 dating did establish the age of the bones as 9,400 years, and an examination by a physical anthropologist confirmed that the bones more closely resembled South Asians and the Ainu of the northern islands of Japan than any other living population, including North Asians and American Indians. Resemblance to the Ainu might account for Kennewick Man's Caucasoid features since the Ainu so closely resemble European and Middle Eastern populations that those populations were once thought to be related to one another, although DNA tests have shown that the Ainu are unrelated to any other living group.

James Chatters, the anthropologist who examined the bones for the coroner and was involved in press accounts of the discovery, says he has been personally harassed by the government, intimidated by their lawyers and questioned by the FBI. He also says that attempts were made to run him out of business.

The Clinton Administration Steps In

The site of an archeological discovery is important in determining facts about the artifacts or human remains found there. Scientists therefore asked permission to examine the site where the bones were found in an attempt to learn more about Kennewick Man. The Corps of Engineers refused. The Corps conducted its own excavation, but it was superficial. When the report was eventually released it contained inadequate and conflicting data. The Corps then announced plans to eliminate the site, despite the fact that it was a registered landmark and thus fell under the provisions of the National Preservation Act. The Corps tried to justify its decision by claiming that the shoreline at that point had to be stabilized. Doc Hastings, Congressman for the district in which the discovery site lay, knows that part of the river very well. In fact until shortly before that time he had lived close by. Hastings objected to the Corps' plans, as did many others. In an effort to save the site, Hastings introduced a bill in Congress to prevent the Corps from carrying out its plan, and the bill passed both houses. The legislation was awaiting the end of the Congressional recess for action by the President when the Corps dumped approximately two million tons of ruble and dirt on the site and planted it with 3,700 willow, dogwood, and cottonwood plantings at a cost to the taxpayer of $160,000. In this way another line of evidence into America's prehistory was permanently closed.

According to the plaintiff's attorney, Alan Schneider, such an act of defiance against Congress by an agency whose budget depends on congressional action is astonishing. The only plausible reason why the Corps took such action despite public protest is that higher-ups assured the bureaucrats they would not suffer any loss of funds as a consequence of their actions. In fact it appears that the order to destroy the site came directly from the White House. Schneider says the administrative record of the case shows that the Clinton administration formed a multi-agency task force to deal with the issue of Kennewick Man. The documents show that at least six meetings were held on the issue and that a meeting held at the Executive Office Building on 30 October 1997 to discuss the burying of the discovery site consisted of fourteen members of the task force, including a Chief Council of the Corps of Engineers, three representatives from the Defense Department, a member of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and an Assistant Attorney General (a confirmation level position).

Overall, the Clinton involvement in Kennewick Man, says Schneider, involvedthe resources and manpower of the Department of the Interior, which included the Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt; the department's subordinate agencies, including the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the Department of Justice and the Office of Solicitor General; and the Department of Defense, including two assistant secretaries, major generals of the Corps of Engineers, and personnel on all levels of the Corps all over the country. Schneider estimates that the total cost incurred by the government was three million dollars to support this flimsy claim to human remains. The only purpose seems to be to thwart science in the defense of a political myth and the agenda it promotes, even at the cost of violating the law.

Kennewick Man, therefore, seems to have been a big time event in the Clinton administration. Faced with all the other problems a normal White House must deal with, the question arises as to why the administration thought this case was so important. We do not have an answer, although details are still being uncovered. Perhaps the best way to frame this question is in the context of the degree to which political correctness has penetrated the formal institutions of the nation. Perhaps the lengths to which the Clinton White House went in extracting campaign funds from casino-rich tribes played a role as well.

The Judge's Decision

Citing violations of NAGPRA, the eight prominent anthropologists brought suit in 1996 to examine the bones of Kennewick Man. On 6 September 2002, the judge finally rendered his seventy-three-page decision. Most of the documents relating to the case can be found on the website of Friends of America's Past ( In fact, much of what is reported above comes from the judge's decision, which is found on the website. The judge found in favor of the plaintiffs, saying that the decision of the Department of the Interior to hand over the bones to the tribal coalition was "arbitrary and capricious, and contrary to law." He also said that the Secretary of Interior's decision was "in excess of the Secretary's authority," and that the government's destruction of the discovery site was in violation of The National Historic Preservation Act. The judge also gave the plaintiffs forty-five days to prepare a research plan before being allowed access to the bones. The Department of Justice has since filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Indian coalition, which has filed its own appeal with the same court, has been given standing to join the case pursued by Justice. The attorney for the plaintiffs anticipated that the Indians may ask for a stay to prevent scientists from studying the bones, as had been ordered in the September trial. Alan Schneider, attorney for the plaintiffs, says that it would save the country a lot of effort and money if the Bush administration would simply drop the case and abide by the trial judge's decision. If, however, the Bush administration were to appeal, Schneider believes the decision is so tightly reasoned, so well grounded in the law and the facts of the case, and so clearly stated, that an appeals court would uphold the decision. If an appeals court were to uphold the decision, says Schneider, the precedent it has set would be strengthened.

One of the most interesting aspects of the decision is how the judge exposed the degree of politicization on the part of the government in handling the case. "The agency decision-makers," he wrote, had "secretly furnished the Tribal Claimants with advanced copies of documents"; they had secretly "met with Tribal Claimants at a critical time in the decision-making process … that gave the Claimants ex parte opportunity to influence decision-makers and to supplement the record in response to these concerns"; they "secretly sent letters to the Tribal Claimants that the aboriginal land issue was under consideration so that they could supplement the record before it closed"; and they "refused to allow Plaintiffs to see any expert reports or materials in the record before the administrative record was closed and final decision was made, and refused to clarify the issues under consideration." In short, the bureaucracy colluded with ethnic entrepreneurs to circumvent the law. In the judge's words, "Nothing in the provisions [of the law] for 'consultation' appears to allow an agency to collude with a claimant when a third party challenges a proposed disposition."

Where Do They Go from Here?

What will the Bush administration do about this trend? Given that the bureaucracy still bears the marks of the previous administration, that political correctness is favored by many at the middle and lower levels of government agencies, and that the Bush administration seems to lack the will to challenge ethnic interest groups in any way or to make politically incorrect decisions of any kind, we can assume that the trajectory set by identity politics and the Clinton administration will probably continue, although with far less ferocity than before. The threat to the scientific study of America's prehistory is especially grave since the federal government is not the only, or even the most fervent, ally of identity politics. States are increasingly putting a stranglehold on science through legislation of their own. This means that if the trend is to be countered, an effort must be made to mobilize support for an open inquiry into the past and for the public ownership of the archeological record.

The Kennewick Man case is important in this struggle since it provides a documented record of what scientists are facing as well as a legal precedent with which they can defend themselves and their science. The problem, however, is that academics are extremely nearsighted and oblivious to the political factors that determine the practice of their profession. They are also timid individuals and notorious suckers for political correctness, which means they will probably permit the continued erosion of this branch of inquiry, and more importantly the erosion of the rational basis of science in general. We can only hope that some of their number will buck the trend and stand up for free inquiry and rational thought against an assault that threatens to become greater than the religious fundamentalism against which science struggled for such a long time.

November 2002

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