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Science vs. Spiritualism

21 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Science vs. Spiritualism: DNA Testing of Native American Remains

Technology never stands still. As we enter the new millennium, technology is increasing at such a great rate that it has raised new moral and ethical questions which some may feel are a threat to traditional values. The debate over cloning will not only challenge society’s notions regarding nature and the value of life, but the very notion of humanity as man becomes closer to having the ability to play God. Another such issue is DNA research used on testing human remains. While the benefits are great, such testing threatens to disrupt cultural values protecting the sanctity and dignity of the dead. The recent uncovering of remains likely belonging to Native Americans has stirred up an enormous amount of controversy among the Native American community in the United States. While Native Americans have held traditional values dating back thousands of years, modern science threatens to undermine those values. A balanced look at both sides of the issue may allow for a compromise between the need for scientific study and deference to cultural values.

While DNA has been used for some time to link suspects to a crime scene or to determine fatherhood of a child, new DNA research has made it possible to jump back in time several generations for purposes of genealogy research (Ambrose 1F). This new type of research reveals secrets, causing some to discover that their ancestors are not who they thought. Genetic genealogy is possible because DNA, the chemical that genes are made of, gets passed down from one generation to the next. Every person, whether male or female, gets essentially equal amounts of DNA from each parent. The Y chromosome, present only in men, gets passed down virtually unchanged from one generation to the next.

Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA change slightly during human history, occasionally not getting copied correctly. Scientists can use this information to reconstruct migrations. DNA studies have shown that there is no biological basis for dividing people into races (Ambrose 1F). While such DNA testing is not as precise as determining paternity, it has been used by Dr. Michael Hammer at the University of Tucson to trace how Jewish men have moved across continents since the Babylonian exile in about 586 B.C., an event which marked the beginning of major migrations of Jewish people out of the Middle East (Ambrose 1F). Rick Kittles, a biologist at Howard University in Washington, D.C., has catalogued DNA from people in western and central Africa, where most Africans brought into U.S. slavery were captured. Such testing should allow African-Americans to narrow their ancestors’ homes to certain regions of Africa (Ambrose 1F).

It isn’t difficult to imagine the excitement of anthropologists when an amazing discovery was made on the Columbia River near Kennewick in Benton Country, Washington one day in 1996. A college student out watching a race was idly scrubbing the tow of his shoe into the mud and hit bone. Because of the skeleton’s odd shape, and because it had an old, healed-over wound in its pelvic bone, officials first thought they had the remains of a white man who had died roughly a century earlier. Yet, when James Chatters, an independent anthropologist, carbon-dated the skeleton, he was shocked: the bones ended up being 9,300 years old (O’Brien 210). The skeleton had a pelvic wound which had been caused by a spear point that is still embedded in the bone. The skeleton bore the physical characteristics of a 5’ 10”, 50 year-old white man (O’Brien 210).

While scientists couldn’t wait to get their hands on the remains, Native Americans were not so enthusiastic. For the past 150 years, American Indians have watched their tribal burial grounds opened by scientists and have watched anthropologists poke and prod their religious artifacts. Since such acts constitutes desecration of their burial grounds and a violation of their traditional values, the Native American community successfully enacted a federal law designed to protect their artifacts (O’Brien 210). Under the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, remains found on tribal lands before the Columbus arrival in 1492 must be returned to native tribes (O’Brien 210). The repatriation part of the mandate also extends to thousands of objects found in graves, ceremonial and burial objects taken and placed into museums. The “repatriation” part of the Act states that these objects never should have left the tribes (O’Brien 210).

Kennewick Man was found in a spot belonging to the Corps of Engineers. Although the Indians have adopted him as their own and refer to him as the “Ancient One,” he is among a very small but very specific category of human remains with at least some Caucasoid traits that date back thousands of years (O’Brien 210). Unlike Native Americans, his face is narrow and he has a long, narrow braincase with narrow cheekbones. Theories abounded as to the origin of Kennewick Man: some scientists have argued that he looks European, while others see a resemblance to the present Ainu people of Japan (Fox).

While the Kennewick Man controversy brought DNA testing to national attention, it is getting more and more common to obtain DNA from old remains. In 1997, British scientists used DNA to link a 9,000-year-old skeleton known as “Cheddar Man” to a living Englishman, presumably a distant descendant (Fox). Researchers have also found bits of DNA in Neanderthal remains more than 20,000 years old (Fox). DNA testing of Native American remains can often indicate if a particular skeleton belongs to one of four indentified haplogroups, or genetic groups, that have been identified among American Indians (Fox). The problem with DNA testing is that, to an extent, it involves some destruction of the sample. This destruction is in violation of Native American beliefs, which state that all remains of an individual must be buried for spiritual reasons.

Armand Minthorn, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Nations, demanded that Kennewick Man be turned over to the Native American community. “They failed to recognize what those remains mean to us as Indian people,” he said, adding that “Ancestral remains … are very sacred – just as is a Bible to the Christian belief” (O’Brien 210). Five Native American tribes have laid claim to Kennewick Man’s remains (Fox). The fundamental irony of this case is that in order to determine “ownership” of Kennewick Man, scientists must conduct tests in order to determine the race to which he belongs. Kennewick Man is a particularly difficult case because since there was no gravesite, anthropologists have fewer clues to go on. Meanwhile, the Umatillas filed a case in federal court, indicating just how strongly they feel about protecting their legacy from what they perceive as the intrusion of scientists.

On 18 February 2000, the Department of the Interior decided to proceed with DNA analysis of Kennewick Man. However, all five claimant tribes – Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Colville, and Wanapum opposed the action (Minthorn). Native Americans tend to be against the use of testing to determine cultural affiliation because they feel it contradicts the principles of repatriation. When testifying before Congress earlier this year, Minthorn has stated that the precedent of using DNA testing to determine cultural affiliation opens up a Pandora’s box of allowing federal agencies and museums to allow such testing (and therefore, further desecration) of their collections. While the Act required museums to return objects by 1995, many have filed three-year extensions (O’Brien). Minthorn and others believe that DNA testing will aggravate the process even further.

Minthorn has claimed that federal agencies do not work with tribes in implementing the Act; rather, they too often make the decisions for the tribes. It should be remembered that in the 19th century, racist “skull scientists” pillaged Native American burial grounds for evidence to support their theory that skull measurements and shapes could be used to categorize races into superior and inferior types (Claiborne). While such beliefs are no longer valid, scientists eager to create new theories on evolution and racial migration tend to be protective of the huge repositories of Native American skeletons. Minthorn and others believe that DNA testing would make them even more protective of such skeletons and weaken the repatriation process. Tribe representatives have angrily denounced Chatters’ theory that Europeans or Asians lived in North America well before the ancestors of the region’s tribes.

On the other side of the argument, eight archeologists insisted that the bones should not be returned to Native Americans because there wasn’t enough evidence to determine ownership. To make matters even more complicated, parts of the femurs, or upper leg-bones, of Kennewick Man were stolen in 1998. While Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit announced that biological, archaeological, anthropoligical, historic, and liguistic data were studied and small pieces of hand and rib bones were sent to three laboratories for DNA testing, scientists were not able to extract enough DNA to resolve the dispute over Kennewick Man’s origins (Claiborne). In order for DNA testing to be viable, bones must be fairly well preserved and contain enough collagen (Fox). Some scientists have suggested that the missing femurs, because of their size and density, may contain enough protein and other organic matter to extract DNA in amount sufficient to prove Kennewick Man’s origins (Claiborne).

An FBI probe failed to locate the bones, and in October of this year, Babbitt announced that the bones of Kennewick Man would be handed over to the five tribes (O’Neill). While the Native Americans will have their bones returned, they will likely be buried in a hidden location and lost to science forever. A similar debate has been going on for over a decade regarding the ancient Kow Swamp burial ground in north central Victoria (O’Neill). The Kow Swamp skulls, between 12,000 and 14,000 years old, closely resemble the skulls of the Solo 8 people Java, who are considered the descendants of Java man, which became extinct (O’Neill). This finding has been used to fuel the “African Eve” theory that suggests that all modern humans, including the aborigines, arose from people who began colonizing the globe from their homeland in Africa no longer than about 250,000 years ago (O’Neill). This theory, of course, has potentially racist overtones.

At the core of the debate in both cases is the idea of who owns the past. Should all human remains be returned to their ethnic owners? Or are they so important that they represent the common heritage of all mankind and should therefore studied. The line where cultural values and technology intersect has created a whole slew of ethical and moral problems. While research such as DNA lineage tracking can certainly be used for racist purposes, it also runs the risk of upsetting long-standing cultural values.

While Chatters’ theory that Native Americans may not have been the first people to populate the United States, other research may prove the same theory. Research done on preserved hair strands by Lori Baker, a doctoral student in anthropology testing at the University of Tennessee, may just prove that the term “Native American” is an oxymoron (Cook). The testing, of course, involves destruction of the sample. If convincing evidence were ever found of a people populating North America before the Native Americans, it would likely open up new avenues of research and shake many of the foundations scientific thought and the spiritual beliefs of Native Americans. The discoveries are potentially earth shattering.

So where’s the middle ground between science and spirituality? At this time, a point of compromise may not exist. To be sure, Native Americans and other ethnic groups have a right to protect their beliefs, especially if that includes keeping and burying the remains of their ancestors. Yet science can benefit greatly from studying the remains of ancient humans, no matter what their race. Aside from tracing patterns of migration, scientists can learn more about how the world was populated in the ancient world, which may help to explain racial and ethnic differences today. Knowledge, of course, can be a dangerous thing, and this information can be used to benefit science or to further racist causes, depending on who’s doing the research.

While a solution will likely not emerge anytime soon, perhaps more advanced testing will emerge that will make the research both more accurate and less destructive. The technology will surely advance to that point in the future. Until that day comes, the only real compromise is to respect the rights of the native peoples – if they wish to allow testing, it should be done; if not, remains should be returned. The late 20th century has been marked by a greater respect for the cultures which have been displaced due to settling and population growth, and that trend should continue. Scientists and curators do not have the right to hoard culturally-significant objects and remains in museums and warehouses. And the right to conduct testing on remains should be decided by individual tribes on a case-by-case basis, not by government committee or in the courts. In cases where testing should be done (even Minthorn admits there are cases such as this), the testing should be just enough to determine ownership.

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Works Cited

  • Ambrose, Sue Goetinck. “Will Gene Research Divide us Further or Bring us Closer?” The Dallas Morning News. 5 June 2000: 1F.
  • Cook, Rebecca. “Population in the State Growing at Slower Pace.” The Columbian. 4 July 2000.
  • Fox, Maggie. “Scientists Prepare to Test Kennewick Man Bones.” Reuters. 25 April 2000.
  • Minthorn, Armand. “National Park Service and Native American Graves Protection: Armand Minthorn.” Congressional Testimony. 25 July 2000.
  • O’Brien, Ellen. “Controversy Continues over Repatriation of Indian Remains.” Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. 10 February 1997: 210.
  • O’Neill, Graeme. “Skull Skulduggery.” Sunday Herald Sun. 8 October 2000. 

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