Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Kennewick Man update I posted earlier about a paper that argued that perhaps Spirit Cave Man might be eligible for repatriation despite its great age. I checked out the paper and here are a few comments on it.

Heather J.H. Edgar, Edward A. Jolie, Joseph F. Powell, and Joe E. Watkins
Contextual issues in Paleoindian repatriation: Spirit Cave Man as a case study
Journal of Social Archaeology 2007 7: 101-122.

Abstract: Judge John Jelderks found that Kennewick Man cannot be defined as Native American under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. A recent amicus brief in the legal case regarding repatriation of materials from Spirit Cave, Nevada, suggests that the Kennewick case should be used as legal precedent, and that the remains of Spirit Cave Man are also not Native American. We suggest that a precedent in cases of Paleoindian human remains is inappropriate and unnecessary. We provide bioarchaeological, human variation, archaeological, social, and cultural contexts of the Spirit Cave Man remains. These contexts indicate that this case, and likely all of the few Paleoindian cases, is unique. Determinations of repatriation of Paleoindians should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

p. 105-106. Two metric analyses concluded that SCM fell outside the range of any modern NA sample, and the latest had them more related to Norse and Ainu.

Argue that Paleoindians don't resemble modern NA groups because of evolution over time. p. 107:
The remains of some Paleoindians express craniodental phenotypes different from those of contemporary Native Americans because they are not contemporary.

Apparently, those who think otherwise are unscientific and playing into the hands of modern religious conservatives. This seems beside the point.

Nevertheless, they also state that "it is not at all clear that these remains can ever be affiliated with any specific contemporary population" because of the temporal differences.

Main argument for cultural continuity is in the manufacture of the fabrics he was buried with. They argue that many of the techniques and decoration employed have a fairly continuous distribution throughout the area into proto-historic times.

They seem to be arguing mostly against a recent amicus brief that seeks to appy the Kennewick case directly to SCM: that anything this old cannot be NA and thus NAGPRA doesn't apply, a priori. They argue that age is/should not be not the sole determinant of whether any remains are "Native American".

They use an example to illustrate what they call the "absurd" nature of the Kennewick decision, where the last member (Ishi) of a tribe (the Yahi) eventually died (1916) and note that his remains would not be considered NA since there was no existing tribe to which he could be tied. This seems to be their main beef with the Kennewick decision; that the legal definition of NA to determine whether NAGPRA applies is at odds with the commonly understood meaning of the term.

They also state that they do not advocate repatriating the SCM remains to any particular tribe at this time, nor that the remains stay in curation permanently.

Two things: First, I'm not entirely certain that one can state that conclusively that Paleoindians and modern groups are different solely because of the passage of time. They only cite one source for that assertion. I'm not arguing the opposite, but I'd like to see a more detailed argument for that.

Second, that the legal definition of what is or is not "Native American" is different from what we ordinarily think of as "Native American" seems kind of trivial to me. Commonsensically, I am a Native American since I and my parents and their parents were born here. The legal definition serves, it seems to me, only a very narrow purpose: that of determining whether or not NAGPRA applies. Thus, the modern example above isn't at all absurd; if there's no tribe in existence to return the remains to, NAGPRA doesn't apply. It would seem to me equally absurd to argue that if a particular unclaimed modern body (say, a murder victim) can't be shown to have any close relatives, it should be given away to whatever family happens to live closest to the morgue.

That said, it's difficult to disagree with the basic contention of the paper, which is that if remains of a certain age can be linked to some modern group, then NAGPRA would apply, and not to simply assume that remains of a certain age (what that age might be, I don't know) cannot be linked to modern groups. Personally, I think a connection has to be and ought to be very well documented and that this is probably not possible for remains this old.

I think one ought to keep in mind that the whole NAGPRA issue only really applies to repatriation issues. Saying NAGPRA doesn't apply doesn't mean that a given set of remains are not "Native American" in some sense, just that no modern group has a particular claim to them. Kennewick and others are part of the pre-Columbian history of this continent; they just can't be linked to any particular tribe for repatriation.