The tensions between science and culture extend far beyond disputes over evolution. In some cases, science and culture disagree on not just what is true, but how actions should be taken in the real world. The story of Kennewick Man is a perfect example of this.
In 1996, while two tourists were visiting Kennewick, on the Columbia River in Washington, they stumbled across a human skull. After the police collected the skull and an almost completely intact skeleton, they determined that the bones came from a Caucasian man. But strangely, there was no murder investigation. This is because, in a very strange twist, Carbon-dating tests showed that the bones were more than 9,000 years old – much older than the earliest recorded Caucasian visits to North America in the 14th century.
Anthropologists, paleontologists, biologists and archaeologists all whipped themselves into a fury of excitement over these bones, which were soon given the name “Kennewick Man.” Everyone, it seemed, wanted to study these remarkably well-preserved remains. At the same time, the local Umatilla Indians, whose ancestors have lived on the Columbia River for thousands of years, claimed the rights to rebury the remains, under the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). To this ancient tribe, the bones are sacred remnants of their ancestors, and as such, they should be returned to the ground.
Before you begin this week’s discussion, read Edward Rothstein’s article, “Antiquities, The World Is Your Homeland”, and think carefully about the complicated ownership issues in this case.
Once you have read the article, visit the PBS website about Kennewick man, focusing on the anthropologists’ justifications for studying the remains:
Debates over human remains and repatriation continue. More recently, additional human remains possessed by the University of California, San Diego, have been the center of a custody battle similar to that of the Kennewick Man. Review the basics of the dispute here:
Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation: