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Editorial: Bones of contention

Politics trumps science in the 'return' of remains

Thursday, October 05, 2000

In a decision that could seriously impede scientific study of America's earliest inhabitants, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has ruled that the bones of the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, discovered in the Pacific Northwest, must be turned over to five tribes of American Indians, who want to rebury them according to their traditions.

The decision, which ignores the need for legitimate scientific inquiry, isn't the last word, because eight anthropologists have a case pending in federal court in Portland, Ore., to reverse the decision and allow studies to proceed. The judge, weighing the evidence outside the political arena, should give science another chance.

While the age-old traditions of Native Americans should be respected, this is not a case about exhuming the body of a known individual nor is it an exercise in idle curiosity. The future of anthropological study on the continent may be at stake if the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is carried to its illogical conclusion.

The law was passed to prevent theft and desecration of Native American graves and funereal objects, but its impact could be to prevent expansion of knowledge about when various branches of the human family first inhabited North America.

Kennewick Man is particularly interesting because his skeleton, according to some scientists, displays differences from those of modern American Indians, whose ancestors are thought to have migrated to this continent across an old land bridge from northern Asia to what is now Alaska. Some scientists have found evidence in the eastern United States suggesting that early inhabitants might have come eons ago from northern Europe via Greenland and northeast Canada. Such evidence, should it be validated, would paint a new and more complex portrait of human migration to the Americas.

Not for the first time, a scientific debate is tinged with racial politics. Some advocates for American Indians worry - fallaciously - that evidence of early racial diversity in this hemisphere would undermine the legal and moral claims of American Indians against European settlers and their descendants. Equally illogically, some white supremacists have tried to make political capital out of the hypothesis that Kennewick Man might have European roots.

Scientific investigation can always be misused to advance a political agenda; that isn't an argument for repressing such investigation. If further study of the origins of Kennewick Man is hampered by political correctness or an overzealous application of the 1990 law, all Americans will be the losers.

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