"Baffle of the Bones" by Robson Bonnichsen and Alan L. Schneider, in The Sciences (July-Aug. 2000), New York Academy of Sciences, 2 E. 63rd St., New York, N.Y. 10021.
Recent archaeological discoveries have opened up the startling possibility that modern-day Native Americans are not descended from the first Americans. Yet, thanks mainly to a decade-old federal law that sought--with archaeologists' consent--to recognize tribes' rights to their ancestors' remains, scientists are being hindered in their efforts to learn more.
"Biological knowledge of the earliest humans in the Americas is amazingly thin," write Bonnichsen, an archeologist at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, and his coauthor. Fewer than 10 "relatively complete, securely dated skeletons more than 8,000 years old have been unearthed in North America"--and some may not be the remains of Native American ancestors. But federal and state officials, bowing to their reading of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, have been handing skeletons over to tribes for rehurial.
Bonnichsen and other scientists have sued the federal government to prevent the loss to science of Kennewick Man, a 9,200-year-old skeleton found on federal land in Washington State four years ago. Hardly a month after the discovery, when only preliminary radiocarbon dating had been done, federal officials decided to give the skeleton to a coalition of five local tribes--a move blocked by the lawsuit (in which co-author Schneider is an attorney). It is not clear that Kennewick Man really "belongs to any existing tribe at all," say Bonnichsen and Schneider.
The possibility that the first Americans were not ancestors of modern-day Native Americans has arisen as a result of the emergence of DNA typing and other new dating technology, along with the unearthing of some very ancient, well-preserved skeletons. Until recently, most scientists …