Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Dem Bones Should Not Be Politicized

National Geographic News reports:

The remains of Kennewick Man, a nearly intact North American skeleton more than 8,000 years old, have been at the center of a controversy since they were found along the Columbia River in Washington state in 1996. Native American tribes have claimed the bones as those of an honored ancestor, "Ancient One," and objected to scientific study of the remains. Now, after a six-year battle, a federal judge has ruled in favor of the scientists.

The Man Without Qualities hopes this decision prevails on appeal - if there is one. It is a disturbing prospect that rare and essential scientific evidence could fall under the exclusive control of people (in this case, Native American tribes) having a distinctly and emphatically non-scientific, politicized agenda. Among other things, the tribes have an incentive to have these remains deemed ethnically similar to the current members of the tribes (and, worse, the tribes actually want to bury the bones, preventing almost any study of them). If that is true, so be it - although a preliminary and highly controversial study had suggested that the skeleton might be of a caucasian . But such delicate, important scientific and historical evidence should be available to the widest possible audience.

It would hardly be the first time control of essential scientific and historical evidence fell into such inappropriate hands - indeed, over time, such a situation has almost certainly more been the norm than the exception. As but one example among uncountably many, control of the Dead Sea Scolls has for decades been a world-wide scientific scandal. And the world's particle accelerators are not exactly open to all researchers who might desire acess to them.

As required by the relevant federal statute, the court ruled that that a "cultural relationship" between Kennewick Man and contemporary Native American tribes had not been proven: "A thorough review of the 22,000-page administrative record does not reveal the existence of evidence from which that relationship may be established in this case."

However, the tribes said that the court's decision "removes any barriers that would prevent the plaintiff scientists from demanding access to all Native American human remains for their scientific needs."

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