Rule of the Bone

After a century of hoarding American Indian remains, scientists are being forced to return their specimens. But the bodies may not go back into the ground without a fight.

For relatively recent remains, determining to which tribe they belong is simple enough. Dakota built mounds, Ojibwe buried distinctive artifacts with their dead. Add that kind of information (much of it culled from archaeologists' field notes) to what is known about the migratory patterns of early tribes, and scientists can make a fairly accurate guess about cultural affiliation.

But anything older than 2,000 years remains an open question. And if it doesn't have a scientifically determined cultural affiliation, anyone can lay claim to a skeleton. In the case of Kennewick Man, the fact that his morphology resembles Caucasians only complicates matters further (a pagan group has recently joined the fray, staking a spiritual claim on the skeleton should it prove to be white).

Under NAGPRA's rules, Kennewick Man is culturally unaffiliated. So is Minnesota's 10,000-year-old Browns Valley Man, who does not have Caucasian features. So are roughly half of the human remains in Minnesota.

Given recent history in Washington state, burying a skeleton as old as Browns Valley Man is sure to generate controversy. Containing as he does the secrets of prehistoric America, Jenks's find could soon find himself at the center of a posthumous legal battle on the scale of Kennewick Man's.

It's Jim Jones's job to make sure that doesn't happen. Jones is the staffer at the MIAC who oversees the NAGPRA program, and he thinks he has discovered a loophole: NAGPRA doesn't force American Indians to bury their dead, he notes. It only forces institutions to give the bodies to tribes. Browns Valley Man already belongs to the MIAC--the pre-NAGPRA Minnesota law gave the MIAC title to all human remains, unaffiliated and affiliated alike. In other words, if the MIAC went ahead and buried its Browns Valley Man, who could launch a claim against them?

Nevertheless, Jones admits he's worried. "There are people opposed to reburial of Browns Valley Man," he says simply. "I expect trouble." When and if the skeleton is buried, along with a projectile point worth thousands on the black market, only Jones and a handful of tribal elders will know where. "If we go to court, we go to court," Jones says. "That's something we'll have to work out then."

All of the human remains affected by the Minnesota law and by NAGPRA have passed through the lab at Hamline University. As she prepares the bones for reburial, O'Connell extracts their final scientific data: She carefully observes each collection for signs of disease or trauma. She records precise measurements with osteometric calipers. The bones are photographed. Other researchers are matching the human remains with lists of artifacts taken from graves, and with the geographic location of each archaeological dig based on field notes taken by Jenks, Wilford, and whomever else has studied the corpses of American Indians. All this information will remain in the hands of scientists.

But for an osteologist like O'Connell, nothing matches the reality of bone for scientific observation. Pulling a long leg bone from one of the drawers lining her lab, she points out that it is encased in a calcified sheath. It looks as if it had been wrapped with an extra layer of bone; the phenomenon indicates that a fatal infection killed this person. "Bone is a very malleable substance," O'Connell explains. "It's dynamic; it's constantly renewing itself. So evidence of fractures, trauma frequently will show up and many diseases also show up in bone."

Simple details like this can say much about the relative health of a population. Comparing tooth eruption to the length of bones can illuminate growth rates. Tooth decay can reveal secrets of diet. And future developments hold out the promise of even more discoveries. "Techniques always improve," O'Connell says. "Ten, 20 years ago there weren't some of the chemical techniques we have now." Carbon dating, for example, has advanced in precision; scientists can determine the age of bones using just one gram of material. Newer advances include DNA testing and the ability to detect trace amounts of elements that can yield more information about the lifestyles of ancient people.

"I think that this is a very good way to find things out," O'Connell says. "This is a difficult issue." She pauses, searching for some diplomatic way to bridge the gap between the scientific method and the amalgam of spirituality and outrage behind the repatriation movement. "But these remains are the responsibility of the Indian Affairs Council," she says at last. "It is their decision and the decision of many tribes to repatriate."

There are scientists who argue that NAGPRA is simply the logical extension of the direction science has been taking since the 1960s and '70s. It was then--around the same time American Indians were mustering the political might to have their claims heard--that the field of archaeology underwent a massive shift away from the interests embodied in the work of Jenks. Researchers abandoned the notion of "ranking [races], always from the perspective of the ranker, who usually came out on top," O'Connell notes, and turned toward "understanding what bones, human remains, archaeological artifacts can tell us about the diversity of human experience in the past."

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