May 25, 2024

Ancient Native American remains spark debate

How should the remains of our remote ancestors be disposed of?

artefacts from the Clovis culture

The sequencing of DNA from a 2-year-old boy who was buried 12,600 years ago in Montana has been accompanied by great attempts to deal ethically with the remains.

A paper in Nature demonstrated that most Native Americans of North and South America are probably descended from a single population which crossed an ancient land bridge across the Bering Strait. The remains of the “Clovis boy” also suggests that the Clovis people diverged from a second group, which survived in Canada and Greenland.

This came as stunning news for many Native Americans, but behind the publication were complicated negotiations with tribes about how to deal with the relics. In the 1990s, the discovery of a 9,000-year-old human skeleton, so-called Kennewick Man, in Washington state, ended up in years of litigation with tribes who said that the remains belonged to them.

The Umatilla tribe, in whose area the skeleton was found, contended that the skeleton belong to their people and that denying that Kennewick Man was not Native American offended their religious beliefs. The courts, however, determined that they were not genetically related and consequently could be studied by anthropologists.

The authors of the paper in Nature did not want to engage in another bruising battle, so they contacted several tribes in Montana to seek their approval.

“That place is very special to me, that’s my ancestral homeland,” Sean Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe who was a consultant to the project. His advice to the scientists was that they boys should be reburied where he had been found. “I think you need to put the little boy back where his parents left him,” he said. The reinterral will probably take place later this year.

Michael Cook
Creative commons
respect for bodies