The Scientists' view of Reburial
Statement of the Problem
One would expect American Indians and American archaeologists to work well together. One group has a long past that was not written down. The other pursues a career dedicated to recovering the past. And while the two groups sometimes do work towards common interests, there is a contentious issue that often divides them, archaeological recovery of burials and their preservation for future study in museums.
Particularly in the west, there are large populations of American Indians still able to keep a separate identity from the dominant society. The reservation system has been deleterious, but it preserved a community of shared values, and traditionalists who influence that community.
Two Worldviews at Odds
Many societies resist the influence of western civilization. It is particularly strong in traditional societies, where the contrast between the old ways of life and the new are overwhelming. Even within the European tradition, individuals and institutional guardians of national identity strive to resist homogenization of culture that communication technology made pervasive in the late 20th century. This is no less true among American Indians. Excavation of burials from the distant past has become one of the symbols of resistance.
Human burials are arresting features. Although increasingly rare, you may have seen photographs of neatly excavated skeletons and wondered about them. I have excavated a number of burials myself. It is a disquieting thing that brings on a period of personal and spiritual reflection. But, to those who wish to know about the past, burials are uniquely revealing. Human remains hold clues to individual histories of injury and illness, broad categories of food sources, general nutritional health of whole societies, and population dynamics. Through them, we can learn more about the social status of particular individuals and communities, relationships with distant peoples, and the ritual life and religious beliefs of ancient societies. [The British Spoilheap web page, Human Bones , explains what human remains offer as testimony of the past.]
Human remains excavated by archaeologists have generally been kept with other classes of archaeological materials, curated at museums and other repositories so future generations of scholars can bring their knowledge and technology to bear on new questions, or reinterpret old ideas. The essence of scientific inquiry is the requirement that other researchers can duplicate results. Depriving present and future generations of the opportunity to reassess, validate, or correct the original research threatens archaeology as a scientific discipline.
Traditionalist American Indians commonly object to burial excavation as showing a lack of respect for their ancestors. Their aim is to prevent any disturbance of human remains, or when that fails, to rebury any individual excavated at an archaeological site. They see no need to maintain collections of skeletal remains. They typically resist analyses involving any destruction of material as desecration, and would ban radiocarbon, trace element, and DNA testing, even though these techniques use only minute samples of bone. They often resist any study at all, and in recent years have been prevailed upon government agencies to forego photography, drawings, or notes on burial excavations. The latest development in Pennsylvania is to forbid excavation of portions of sites that might contain burials.
What is at stake?
Concrete examples give a better picture of the significance of burial and curation policy to science. I will describe four, each illustrating a particular point. One is of international interest, two of national, and another is locally important.
In 1997, two biochemists were the first to extract and analyze DNA from a Neandertal. The result suggests the Neandertals were a separate human species. It upset the conventional view that the Neandertals were another race, possibly the immediate ancestors of Europeans. Neandertal studies were rejuvenated by scientific techniques that were not possible a decade earlier.
The material they tested came from the first Neandertal ever identified, one discovered in 1856 and kept in a museum since. The research will have to be repeated on other individuals, and these, too, will come from museum collections, for Neandertal discoveries are not an everyday occurrence.
In an Arizona museum, Christy Turner made a chance rediscovery of human remains from a rather ordinary site. They had been recovered three years before, in 1964, and the original excavator saw no particular significance in them. However, the bones showed an unusual amount of breakage and some suspicious traits.
Turner finished his analysis in 1969, and concluded that the 30 individuals had been cannibalized. This was quite a departure from the prevailing view of a nearly utopian society in the Southwest, but similar results have strengthened the case since then. This kind of reinterpretation can only be done on collections that have been permanently curated.
A Columbia River skeleton is the subject of a particularly bitter dispute. Discovered in an eroding riverbank in 1996, the initial examiner, James Chatters, first thought it was an early settler of European ancestry. The washout was near an early homestead and the skull exhibited many characteristics of caucasoids, but few of American Indians. However, a CT scan showed a projectile point imbedded in the hip, and subsequent radiocarbon dating yielded an age for the bones of nearly 9,300 years. Since researchers have long believed that American Indians derived only from recognizable Asian populations, the remains are especially important.
The Army Corps of Engineers (Walla Walla District) controls the area of discovery, so the find is subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Four days after the radiocarbon test showed its antiquity, the Corps District re-possessed the skeleton and refused permission for further radiocarbon dating or DNA tests. The Corps announced its intention to repatriate the bones to the Umatilla of Oregon, the geographically nearest tribe. If they had taken possession, the Umatilla would have reburied the remains immediately, without further study, as other tribes have done to even more ancient and rare individuals. The Corps' actions were strongly rebuked under court review, and judge's decision was completely upheld when the case was appealed.
Less well known is a project completed in 1999 in Moorefield, West Virginia. Archaeological surveys for a flood protection project there discovered a site that was occupied at the time of the founding of Jamestown. An agreement negotiated for the project required that if any burials were removed, these and any associated grave goods would be re-interred within 24 hours -- typically, proper study takes weeks or months. The agreement was modified later to allow some time for analysis of the individuals.
About a dozen burials were discovered, and their very fragile condition, caused by bone mineral dissolution, presented particular challenges in excavation. After the work was completed, and before the reburial, some archaeologists were invited to examine the remains and grave goods. One strongly expressed an opinion that one individual's gender was misidentified. We will never know if this mistake was made, or if there are others relating to gender, physical description, pathology, and morbidity, because the skeletal remains and the burial goods - which would have helped understand the relationship of the Potomac Valley to Jamestown - have been destroyed.
Compounding the loss, no report was ever published describing the Moorefield
village site and what it tells about the Contact period. Apparently the Army
Corps of Engineers had a problem funding a report of the excavations. Whatever
the case, since no analysis was done and now there is missing significant material
missing, the final result is no better than had the site been bulldozed.
Four Examples, Four Points
I elaborated on these four sites because each illustrates an important point:
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© 2002, 2008 Roger B. Wise