Which is more true: The historical data you can measure, weigh, and record? Or the evidence that comes from a heartfelt history passed along since before recorded time? And what happens if the fundamental values behind one version of truth conflict with those of the other?
A legal case involving a skeleton more than 9,000 years old pits scientific inquiry against the rights of native Americans.
Indians say the remains of "Kennewick Man" - named for the Washington State town where he was found along the banks of the Columbia River in 1996 - belong to an ancient ancestor whom they have a right to honor and bury without scientists poking and prodding him. The US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Interior Department agreed, and ordered the remains of what native Americans call "the Ancient One" turned over to the tribes.
But eight top archaeologists and anthropologists (two of them with the Smithsonian Institution) have sued, contending there is evidence that the remains are of a man not related to native Americans and that it is very important the skeleton be studied to learn more about how North America was populated millenniums ago.
The case is being argued before a federal magistrate in Portland, Ore., this week, and according to partisans on both sides, the stakes couldn't be higher.
"What is at issue in this case is not just our desire to protect one ancestor, but how this case will be applied to every other native-American skeleton found in the United States," says Armand Minthorn, a member of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore.
How scientists see it
The Society for American Archaeology, on the other hand, warns that if the scientists lose their case, there could be "devastating implications for accommodating scientific and diverse public interests."
Given the long history of grave-robbing in North America to supply private collections, museum exhibits, and university laboratories, the issue is highly sensitive to both sides.
In response to Indian concerns, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. It provides that remains and funerary objects be returned to those shown to be lineal descendants or having a close cultural affiliation. This is the law on which the Army Corps and Interior Department ruled in favor of a coalition of five Pacific Northwest tribes.
When he made his ruling last September, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt relied primarily on the location of Kennewick Man near traditional tribal areas and on the oral histories of the tribes.
"Clearly, when dealing with human remains of this antiquity, concrete evidence is often scanty, and the analysis of the data can yield ambiguous, inconclusive or even …