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
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
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
"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 contradictory results," Mr. …