The editors of the respected Scientific American journal have joined a growing chorus calling for the repeal of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which, they say, “throttle[s] scientific study of America’s heritage.”
In an editorial published in the latest issue of the journal, the editors point out that the latest casuality of this law—which gives “Native Americans” the automatic right to ownership of any ancient human remains found anywhere within the US, will be 10,000-year-old human bones found in Jolla, California, currently held by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
According to the journal, the remains, which have been held by the USCD since 1976, will be “turned over to the local Kumeyaay Nation tribes.”
The Kumeyaay, also known as Tipai-Ipai, Kamia, live in the southwestern United States and northwest Mexico, and have “long sought control over the bones, which they contend are the remains of their ancestors,” the Scientific American article said.
“Being some of the oldest human skeletal remains in North America, the bones could help scientists piece together the peopling of the New World.
“The excellent preservation of the specimens hints that they might contain DNA suitable for analysis with techniques geneticists have recently developed—the results of which could yield crucial insights into where early Americans came from. Such studies may never come to pass.”
After engaging in an obligatory mea culpa white guilt whining, the journal carries on: “The physical evidence indicates that the La Jolla bones are not affiliated with any modern tribe, including the Kumeyaay, who moved into the area only within the past few thousand years. The new federal regulations are blind to this evidence. In effect, they privilege faith over fact.”
In May 2010, the US Department of the Interior announced regulations which allow tribes to claim even those remains whose affiliation cannot be established scientifically, as long as they were found on or near the tribes’ “aboriginal lands.”
“Thousands of remains could be made inaccessible to researchers,” the Scientific American article continued. “In our view, the new regulations should be repealed or, at least, revised to distinguish different classes of unidentified remains.”
Although the Scientific American article does not mention it specifically, the editors are of course referring to the mounting evidence that the earliest human inhabitants of North America were not Indians, but Europeans.
The latest evidence was built upon pioneering discoveries in the 1990s which showed that a number of ancient human remains discovered in North America (Spirit Cave Mummy—facial reconstruction alongside—Kennewick Man and others) all predated the arrival of Indians on that continent.
Later, it was claimed that these remains were “Ainu” or “Polynesian” in origin, although preliminary physical examinations concluded that they were clearly Caucasian.
In the cases of Kennewick Man and the Spirit Cave Mummies, Indian tribes launched determined efforts to seize and destroy the remains under the NAGPRA provisions, but were fortunately prevented from doing so by court actions. No DNA tests have yet been carried out on those particular remains.
The decision by the editorial board of the Scientific American is therefore to be welcomed by all right-minded people who seek an answer to the question, “Who were the first inhabitants of America?”