Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Skeletal remains and the issue of cultural affiliation

What to do when modern science contradicts cultural claims based on oral traditions? This was the case over the Kennewick Man. Now, here is another case (from Science - Apr 17, 2009):
Officials at the University of California, San Diego, have withdrawn a request to the federal government to rebury 10,000-year-old skeletal remains unearthed on UCSD property.

The bones were found in 1976 near the chancellor's house in San Diego, and they're even "older and better preserved" than Kennewick Man, says UCSD anthropologist Margaret Schoeninger. In 2006, the local American Indian group, the Kumeyaay nation, requested the bones for reburial. Two university committees ruled against the request, saying there is no evidence of cultural affiliation with living groups, as the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires. Nonetheless, UCSD officials decided to hand over the bones.

Now they've withdrawn that request--not because of loud protests that came from anthropologists but because the Kumeyaay don't like the wording, according to a UCSD statement. Kumeyaay leaders objected last week to UCSD's calling the remains culturally unidentifiable--an acknowledgment that could hurt their cause in this and future cases before the NAGPRA review committee, which meets in Seattle, Washington, in May.
But it all boils down to how to define cultural affiliation. The UC system, actually, has an extensive procedure in place to determine cultural affiliation (this bit from a story from Nature):

Currently, decisions about cultural affiliation are made by a panel of scientists - typically including a Native American - at each campus. Campus actions are then reviewed by a nine-person University of California panel, which includes two Native Americans, before a final decision is reached. But in September, the office of Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California, initiated discussions about possibly eliminating the system-wide committee.

Four prominent University of California anthropologists wrote a letter to Yudof on 30 September, strenuously objecting to the proposed change. They include Phillip Walker and Michael Glassow of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Robert Bettinger of the University of Californa, Davis; and Philip Wilke of the University of California, Riverside. “It is counterproductive to devolve final decision-making authority to the often inexperienced and legally ill-informed level of the local campus,” says the letter. In an interview, Bettinger said that the system-wide panel serves as a vital form of peer review.

It seems that from a scientific perspective, its not looking good for the tribes:
Schoeninger, co-director of the UCSD Working Group that reviewed the original request, reported at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Chicago, Illinois, last week that her lab's analysis of the bones indicated a marine diet, suggesting the bones were from coastal inhabitants rather than from the desert-dwelling Kumeyaay. Besides, she says, other evidence suggests the Kumeyaay moved into the region just 2000 years ago.
So we come back to the issue of evaluating these claims. If we talk purely about evidence, then sure enough, science presents a clear cut case: the bones could not possibly be of any ancestor of Kumeyaay tribe. However, values associated with cultural stories often move beyond the simple accuracy of claims, and are usually tied to the very identity of the tribe itself. I have my sympathies with the scientists - there is a lot to learn from the skeletal remains - but we must also understand and acknowledge the loss for the tribe.