Re: A Demand for the Kennewick Man's Remains
Thu, 21 Nov 1996 13:32:42 -0600

On Wed, 20 Nov 1996, Stella Nemeth wrote:

> I think it is an update
> of a report from someone who has done something rather odd with the
> current law as it stands. If the remains are as old as he says they
> are, and if they are caucasioid remains, he does have a point. The
> local tribes that have claimed the remains are no closer related to
> them than anyone else in the world is, and he has the advantage over
> them because he is, at least, a memeber of the same general race.

Which begs the question, "what is race"? It is a folk concept -- it
certainly has no scientific currency, especially in anthropology. The
indices by which the "race" of skeletons is determined are statistical
indices. They do not give a probability that a skeleton is one "race" or
another -- they give the frequency of occurrence of skeletal traits. It
so happens that some of these traits cluster with others in higher
frequencies among people from one geographic area than from another.
When a particular cluster of traits occurs at a rate of 69% among people
from Africa, it does not mean that a skeleton with such a cluster
has a 69% probability of being African. The same cluster of traits might
have a frequency of 42% among Europeans and 39% among Asians. Given the
different population sizes in those three areas, a 69% frequency within
one area population might be sufficient for a 52% probability that an unknown
person with those traits came from Africa. (N.B. the numbers are just
made up to make the point).

The "race" identifications resulting from these indices are best thought
of as morphological types. Statistical "norms," if you will. But there
is always variation around such a "norm". There probably are historical
(long-term genetic) reasons why there are "norms," "types," modes that
appear in populations from particular geographic areas. But it does not
follow that a person who matches a statistical type must be from the
associated geographic area. Why? Human variation. There is a lot of
it. If 69% of a population exhibits a particular cluster of traits, that
means 31% exhibit a different set of traits. And not all clusters of traits
are mutually exclusive. You might have some clusters that seem "African" and
others that seem "Asian" in the same skeleton. Assigning "race" is therefore
an educated guess, as much art as science.

But you never really assign "race". Race presumes a particular
historical circumstance (genetic relationship to a particular
population). The statistical indices don't address questions of history,
they address questions of associations between traits. You can have a
person who fits the statistical "type" for caucasians -- but if there is
no viable historical explanation for the presence of caucasians at that
place at that time, then you are better off saying that the person is
genetically related to Asians, but exhibits sufficient variation around
the Asian "type" that they appear "caucasian". But since "race" presumes
historical connection, and there is no evidence of that, then the concept
of "race" is clearly a misnomer -- "type" is far more appropriate.

There are lots of reasons why the identification of the skeleton as
"caucasian" is suspect, besides it being a sample of 1.

First, the indices by which we make such "racial" -- i.e. typological --
classifications are based on a big (I think about 50,000) collection of
skeletons at the Smithsonian Institution (I don't remember the name, but
it's well known among physical anthropologists). I think this
collection contains mostly social unfortunates (e.g. poor people) from
the 19th and 20th centuries. In general, a great deal of demographic
information about the individuals is known -- age, sex, health, race (in
the historical sense). But the majority of it is caucasian, which means
that we may not have a good grasp of the real range of variation in other
"races". Moreover, by the last century, there were quite a few
"biracial" people (which, incidentally, is why the concept of race as an
historical genetic association with a particular geographic population
does not work. I'll keep using it that way for simplicity, though).

So our indices MAY generally hold for modern populations -- but the skeleton
in question is 9,000 years old! There is NO reason for assuming that
human variation 9,000 years ago is exactly what is has been in the past
150 years! We are comparing a 9,000 year-old person with a modern
control sample. That introduces an unknown amount of error. To say that
this individual is caucasian, we would have to know the range of human
variation among 9,000 year old caucasians, as well as Asians and Africans
(to make sure that there wasn't so much overlap as to make two groups

Second, aren't there caucasians in central Asia? What about the
aboriginal people of northern Japan (the Ainu) --
weren't they "caucasian" in appearance? "Race" (in the sense of
genetic relationship) is not interchangeable with culture. Maybe there
was a small population of "caucasians" that migrated over the Bering into
North America. But if so, there culture was likely far more similar to
Native Americans than to Europeans (both 9,000 years ago and today).
NAGPRA is not based on "racial" affiliation, but on cultural
affiliation. Just because someone may have looked like you doesn't mean
they would have identified with you rather than with someone who looked
different. Even if the claimant belongs to the same "race" he does NOT
have a better claim. "Race" and ethnicity are different.

Since there is no evidence of long-distance colonization 9,000 years ago,
we have to assume that, whatever "racial" affiliation the person may have
had, there cultural affiliation was probably more like that of the people
around them. And certainly their descendants' culture would have become
part of that great variety of Native American culture. Perhaps this
skeleton was a member of the "caucasian race". That doesn't give
Euro-Americans a claim on it, because probably this person WAS a Native
American. "Native American" does not refer to a "race," it refers to the
population that for historical reasons was the first human population to
settle in North America. Apparently this person was among them.
The rest of us Euro-Americans came some 8,500 years later. We are NOT
Native Americans (leaving aside those many of us who have Native American
great-grandparents -- that was substantially after 9,000 years ago).

Of course, a Euro-American claim on the skeleton is just the sort of
proprietary politicking about ownership of the past that NAGPRA emerged
as a response to. Now we're beginning round two. Better we should start
being cooperative than be stubborn. Why do you think the situation is
what it is today? Because we Euro-Americans assumed that we know best,
and that Science is good for everyone and everyone had better admit to that.
Know what? Uh-uh. Euro-American culture is not the apex of human
cultural achievement. That sort of arrogance just pisses off
non-Euro-Americans, and there are a lot more of them than there are of
us. This kind of claim is the NAGPRA version of crying "reverse
discrimination" with respect to affirmative action. Losing a position of
privilege and being forced to compete is not discrimination.

Rebecca Lynn Johnson
Ph.D. stud., Dept. of Anthropology, U Iowa