Faith versus fact: the problem of Native American creationism and paleoanthropology in North America

June 14, 2021 • 9:30 am

This article in Quillette caught my eye because it was about science—paleoanthropology—and its conflict with faith. The authors are a pair of anthropologists who have written a book about the topic, which is the perennial conflict between scientists on the one hand and Native Americans claiming ancient human remains that, they say, are their ancestors.

Click on the screenshot to read:

The title refers to a meeting of the SAA in April when Weiss gave a talk about the obstructionism of Native American creation myths as they affect paleoanthropology in North America. Although the talk is certainly germane, and provides food for thought (see below), it was in effect “erased” by the SAA, who refused to post it despite their pledge to do so. It was the only talk that wasn’t posted. The reason is clear: going up against the claims of Native Americans, even if those claims can’t be supported, is a no-win situation. As Weiss writes:

The new SAA president, Deborah Nichols, subsequently contacted me to let me know that the video of our live talk would not be posted by the SAA for others to view, due to reports of hurt feelings. (We had previously relied on the SAA’s emailed assurance to presenters that “sessions will be available for viewing on demand within 24–36 hours after their original broadcast, until July 17, 2021.”) Furthermore, we learned, the SAA would not even provide us with the video. (And so we re-recorded the talk, which you can find here.) Another SAA statement was then put out to inform readers that “the SAA board finds the presentation does not align with SAA’s values,” and mentioned that “the board categorically rejects the Weiss-Springer position.”

Here’s the 13-minute talk that Weiss re-recorded after the SAA refused to post it:

There was substantial other pushback on both professional and social media. Here’s an example of a reaction by an “indigenous archeologist” to Weiss’s abstract of the talk: archaeologist.”

Hurt feelings again!

Well, we all know about these conflicts, and it’s conceivable that for some of them the Native Americans have a right to the bones and artifacts found by archaeologists, who of course lose the chance to study them.  But in most cases that “right” is dubious, for the genetic connection between those claiming the bones and the person whose bones are claimed is tenuous at best. Often it rests solely on creation myths: many Native Americans claim that despite scientific evidence that the Americas were populated by “modern” H. sapiens who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia about 15,000 years ago, their ancestors have lived in America forever. Further, to establish that the bones belong to a specific tribe is almost impossible, because bones from people of multiple “tribes” have been found in one locality, and there was considerable migration within North and South America.

Genetic analysis could conceivably settle the question, but without the bones you don’t have the DNA, and even so it’s hard to narrow down ancient DNA to a specific existing group of Native Americans, who are fairly closely related to each other. It’s even worse because the U.S. government passed laws saying that establishing ancestral (i.e., genetic) affinity isn’t necessary: “cultural evidence”, like oral traditions and creation myths, is sufficient. That immediately puts science at loggerheads with superstitions, superstitions that can be demonstrably incorrect.

As an example, Weiss and Springer discuss the famous Kennewick Man, 8,400- year-old remains of a man found in 1996 in Kennewick, Washington. It’s one of the most complete ancient North American skeletons ever found (see photos at bottom), and dates pretty close to the time when Asians began populating the Americas. But the remains were claimed by several tribes of Native Americans, although, according to the authors “the oldest known American tribe, the Hopi, reliably dates its history to only about 2,000 years ago.”

This started a decade-long court case between Native Americans, scientists, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The case wasn’t resolved until 2004, and in favor of the scientists, though the remains have since been returned to a “coalition of Pacific Basin tribes” for reburial.

In the meantime, scientific studies of the skeleton, including use of DNA, showed that it was actually more closely related to “modern American Indian populations of Central and South America who are not ‘Native American'” by the U.S. government’s regulations. Using ancestry rather than creation myths, those other populations would have a stronger claim to the bones than would North American tribes.

In the meantime, scientists were able to find out a great deal of information from the skeleton. As the article states,

The greatly delayed scientific study was finally carried out, and the result was a magnificent peer-reviewed 2014 volume, edited by Jantz and Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, titled: Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton. The studies revealed Kennewick Man’s age, sex, bone morphology, and bone chemistry, as well as modifications to the skeleton incurred during his life. This information, in turn, allowed inferences as to his food intake, food production, and other physical activities, and diseases and injuries he’d endured.

His affinities with other prehistoric and modern populations and individuals were also revealed by these studies. Kennewick Man’s dietary reconstruction from nitrogen isotopes (elements found in a variety of food sources that settle in bones and teeth, and which can be used to reconstruct eating and weaning patterns) revealed a diet composed mainly of marine foods. This differed from the previous view of Paleoindians as big game hunters. Kennewick Man also had bony growths in his ear canals called external auditory exostoses, which some have argued may have impacted his hearing and were related to chronic ear infections.

Kennewick Man had multiple injuries—including a projectile point (a spear head) in his pelvic bone. Chatters argued that this injury never healed properly and likely caused lifelong pain. Anthropologist Della Cook, on the other hand, suggested that the lack of reactive bone (which is evidence of bone healing from injury or infection) in the CT-scans suggests that Kennewick Man’s injury healed quickly. Interestingly, these two perspectives were both published in this 2014 book—an example of the open-minded manner in which science should be conducted and evaluated.

All of this information would have been lost had the repatriationists been successful. No other Paleoindian is as well studied as Kennewick Man, and many were reburied with just a simple osteological report. Such reports may include only the remains’ antiquity, sex, estimated age, and other basic information; and often are written up by undertrained students and marginal scholars who are not subject to peer review, and who do not report their findings in a way that contemporaries can validate. . .

Weiss and Springer describe other cases in which cultural tradition blocked scientific study, as well as scientific study that did succeed in finding out stuff about early Native Americans.

So what should the rule be? Of course, as a scientist who values scientific fact over creation myths or oral tradition, I’m biased in favor of empirical study. But if remains can be traced to a specific tribe or group of tribes, showing the bones to be more closely related to that group than to other tribes, one might consider tribal claims to be valid.  Even so, perhaps there should be an allowed period of scientific study, say two years, before the remains are returned to present-day tribes for reburial or various rites. After all, it’s not as if these bones belong to a present family of Native Americans, like the remains of someone’s son recovered and returned after a battle.

But I don’t think that claims based only on “oral tradition” or “creation myths,” should be honored at all. In such a case, the remains should then be available to scientists. After all, if we honor such superstitious claims, we are also tacitly honoring the creation myths of anybody, including Christians, Scientologists, and Muslims, each of which has its own creation story. That is government entanglement with religion.

And it’s a double entanglement: one with the myths of Native American groups, and the other with the religion of Wokeism, which makes the SAA into an organization that renders decisions based not on empirical considerations, but on ideology and identity politics.

Here’s the skeleton and skull of Kennewick Man:

CHIP CLARK/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

65 thoughts on “Faith versus fact: the problem of Native American creationism and paleoanthropology in North America

  1. No claim on bones anywhere close to this old should be considered. As you noted, these bones can’t possibly be related to families of people today, or even to their tribes. As such, they belong to nobody (or to everybody). Handing them over to some tribe so they can perpetuate their creation myth doesn’t help the world in any way, but scientific study of them does. The only thing honoring creation myths does is further the cause of Wokeism, which is apparently a very serious consideration now; so serious, in fact, that it can take precedence over actual scientific research and knowledge. Ceiling Cat help us…

    1. Also, the Kennewick Man most assuredly had a different set of religious beliefs than any of the modern tribes or their recent ancestors. It’s arrogant to think that they can speak for this person’s beliefs.

    2. Agreed absolutely. Our host writes,

      After all, if we honor such superstitious claims, we are also tacitly honoring the creation myths of anybody, including Christians, Scientologists, and Muslims, each of which has its own creation story

      , to which list could be added The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which has a creation myth at least as credible as the others mentioned.

      1. Speaking on behalf of the last-named Faith Community, I assert that any scientific desecration of spaghetti—or, indeed, any kind of pasta—violates the tenets of our religion and is deeply hurtful. We believe that pasta may only be consumed as part of our religious observances, as with the communion wafers of another belief system (which must have culturally appropriated the practice from us).

        1. You’re not to going to get far in a dialog with First Nations by comparing their religious beliefs with the intentionally deprecatory FSM. Note the non-reciprocity: a bunch of FSMists making fun of a small community of First Nations is quite difference than going up against a fundamentalist majority who will burn your pasta with a steak.

  2. The Native Americans got pushed around and even worse for a very long time. This is a way to feel some measure of power.

    1. This is both true and totally irrelevant to the study of the artefacts and remains in question.

      1. I don’t think it’s entirely irrelevant if we’re talking about going in to reservations or federal park land and digging stuff up without the permission of the reservation’s owners (or in the case of federal land, the people that a state government has symbolically recognized as the people ‘of that land.’). The ethics of land use, ownership, and permission can be (IMO) separated from the science of the bones. And while scientists may be completely right about the science of the bones, that doesn’t mean we are necessarily right about who gets a say in land use and permission to conduct archeological investigations. I’m certainly not descended from any human bones found in my back yard. Nevertheless, you don’t get to dig there or remove stuff from it without my permission.

  3. Isn’t is particularly ridiculous to bend over for Indian religious belief even more so than we already do for Christian belief. It’s as if the Constitution goes out the window and the bible comes in. And the Indians do not even have a bible, as if that makes any difference. I guess the Indians argument before the court will be, we were here before the Constitution. Science loses again.

    1. And the Indians do not even have a bible

      How many hundreds – or thousands – of distinct religions are held by members of the “Indian” communities?
      Odds on, the number of religions is somewhere between the number of communities and the number of individuals, and closer to the latter.

  4. More flat-out stupid Woke crapthink. The Bolshevik/Stalinist regime persecuted early Soviet quantum theorists because they found wave/particle duality a manifestation of ‘bourgeois idealism’; the Nazis, because it was ‘Jewish physics’. How is this despicable racialization of reality any different? It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the mediocrities promoting it have no other way to make their mark on their field…

    1. “It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the mediocrities promoting it have no other way to make their mark on their field…”

      This continues to be my go-to explanation for all of this nonsense. Richard Dawkins said this outright when writing about “post-modernism”, and Pinker has made arguments along this line as well when battling with critics of the Enlightenment.

      1. This was of course the old story in a galaxy far, far away where, at different times, campaigns against quantum mechanics, resonance structures in Chemistry, cybernetics, and “Mendelism-Morganism” provided career opportunities. As Anna Krylov put it in a review of that history: “those who are “on the right side” of the issue can jump a few rungs and take the place of those who were canceled.” Her excellent J. Phys. Chem. paper on the lessons this history has for us today, is at: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c01475?ref=pdf& .

  5. Unrelated to paleoanthropology, but instructive about the nonsense that follows from a government’s privileging of religion over science, Private Eye magazine recently reported (in its serious investigative section, though you could be forgiven for thinking what follows is satire):

    A video on how to drink cow urine to acquire immunity from Covid, from Indian MP Surendra Singh of the Hindu Nationalist BJP, went viral on 9 May. On 13 May, BJP politician Saikhom Tikendra Singh died of Covid. That same day, journalists Kishorechandra Wangkhem and Erendro Leichombam were arrested for inciting mischief by stating in Facebook posts that cow urine does not protect against coronavirus – another BJP politician had called this disrespectful. India’s ruling BJP suppresses anything that runs counter to religious rhetoric, whatever the human cost.

    Of course, sadly we know what happened next…

    1. A friend of mine used to say, ‘Reality bats last’. The level of idiocy that over the centuries has led to untold deaths and suffering through the denial of this principle is impossible to state—the reals don’t go down far enough.

  6. A couple of weeks ago I posted the link below which is relevant to the topic at hand, also from Quillette:

    https://quillette.com/2021/03/29/the-campaign-to-thwart-paleogenetic-research-into-north-americas-indigenous-peoples/

    In addition, the May, 2021 issue of Scientific American contained an article about the peopling of the American continents. Its author is Dr. Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas. Early on, the article states:

    “In their journey into the Americas, the ancestors of present-day Indigenous peoples overcame extraordinary challenges……

    There are many perspectives that aim to explain these events. Indigenous peoples have numerous oral histories of their origins. Passed down from one generation to the next, such traditional knowledge conveys important lessons about the emergence of each group’s identity as a people and their relationship with their lands and nonhuman relatives. Some of these histories include migration from another place as part of their origins; others do not. The framework that most Western scientists use in understanding the history of population movements is different. This article will focus on their models for the peopling of the Americas, while respecting and acknowledging that these models stand alongside diverse and ancient oral histories with which they may or may not be congruent.”

    Those last 2 sentences struck me: Is Dr. Raff essentially saying that what science uncovers is to be treated as no more factual than personal truth or myth? Had these people been Christian fundamentalist, Would she have been as solicitous? It’s also interesting that no mention is made of the extinctions that followed the arrival of homo sapiens to the Americas, and related effects. Instead, there is a tone of romanticization.

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/genomes-reveal-humanitys-journey-into-the-americas/

    (BTW, I won’t be renewing my Scientific American subscription, regrettably, as I have lost confidence in what I read in it.)

    1. No, I definitely do not read Dr. Raff as saying that what science uncovers is to be treated as no more factual than personal truth or myth. I’d go so far as to say she wrote nothing of the sort. To me it seems that she thinks her science is factual while Native American myths are not, while carefully not directly saying so. I read her as attempting to be inoffensive in a field in which scientists reporting their work are often irrationally attacked for supposedly disrespecting Native Americans because their findings are not congruent with Native American myths. It could be argued that this is a spineless thing to do, but I don’t think it is.

      Regarding mention of extinctions following the arrival of humans to the Americas, I don’t think that any given article or paper about humanity’s journey into the Americas should be expected to mention that. Such an expectation seems similarly unreasonable, non sequitur and ideological agenda driven as the woke insisting that racism should be mentioned in every article or paper about any topic you care to choose.

      1. Recognition of non-empirical models seems to now be de rigueur. She is doing this out of essentially peer/discipline pressure to avoid being cancelled.

        And in so doing, her field and she, draw equivalency, perhaps not exact, between empiricism and myth.

    2. (BTW, I won’t be renewing my Scientific American subscription,

      Don’t forget to tell them why you’re un-subbing. The gesture can’t have any effect unless you do.

  7. An interesting paragraph from Weiss and Springer’s article:

    Another example to consider can be found in a collection that one of us (Elizabeth) curates at San José State University: the Ryan Mound. This collection has been continuously studied for decades. But only in recent years did we first learn that there may be multiple populations at the site, with one group having been displaced by another. This is a common situation one deals with in anthropology research. In terms of NAGPRA, it results in an ironic situation whereby remains and artifacts of an early civilization are being handed to the descendants of those who conquered, displaced, or exterminated the original inhabitants.

    ‘Nuff said!

  8. A simple response to those Native Americans who claim “we have always been here” is that all living humans descend from African ancestors within the last hundred thousand years. If they’re saying they don’t share that descent, they are saying they are not human beings. Is that really a claim they want to make?

    1. Apart from the infinite regression argument (just about everywhere was stolen from somebody else once) and Africans were enslaved by other Africans and Arabs before Europeans, etc…..
      There’s a “one size fits all” dynamic to “Indigenous Rights”. The Maori in NZ, for instance have been there for about a thousand years, the Australian aborigines about 60,000, in the Americas 10,000.
      Is there a hierarchy of rights here? If so, it is horribly phony and morally questionable.

      D.A.
      NYC

  9. I understand the emotional desire to protect the remains of our ancestors but it is oddly applied. Ancient DNA examination is common in Europe and Asia and has led to great scientific discoveries such as Neanderthal-Human hybridization and knowledge of various migrations and conquests. Even relatively recent dead have been disinterred (e.g Richard III) and slave graves in Texas.
    https://www.khou.com/article/news/local/dna-testing-crucial-to-identifying-remains-in-unmarked-graves-in-sugar-land/285-579505507

    But it is taboo for the indigenous Americans.

    1. Not only did Blues musician Leadbelly do a stint in the prison in SugarLand, Texas, he wrote a song about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZHFtMYyf9E

      But when the song was covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival decades later, the lyrics were changed from “SugarLand bound” to “prison bound”.

      A few years ago, a new subdivision was built on prison land in SugarLand. One of the original prison buildings was spared demolition, and is now a community center located in the middle of the subdivision. One of my clients who lives in that subdivision said that the community center is known as “The Big House”.

  10. The SAA and their ilk seem to make two assumptions:

    – all Native Americans are religious fundamentalists, and
    – it is desirable that they remain so.

  11. Imagine the following headline:

    “Cosmology: Due to hurt feelings, steady-state theorists demand that big-bang theorists be deplatformed”

    Duh! – Seriously, from the perspective of postmodernist wokeism, there is no difference between a scientific cosmogony and a creation myth, because scientific theories are themselves just one kind of myths or stories among many others. Scientific knowledge is in no way epistemologically and methodologically superior to nonscientific “knowledges” as embodied by indigenous creation myths. Postmodernism undermines the very idea of science as an inquiry into objective reality, because according to it there is no such thing, and hence no objective scientific knowledge.

  12. It is very apparent that most, if not all, remarks were made by people who do not know any Indians/Native Americans nor have participated in their lives. My wife and I are currently working with a Wisconsin tribe to get a better perspective on how they constructed and managed corn gardens. Our limited (by choice) excavations of garden ridges are the first to help to understand a rather complex horticultural system. I have been an invited observer of many games and ceremonies of tribes in the Dakotas over the past 50 or more years. I have participated in ceremonies with most of the medicine men on the Rosebud Reservation (Lakota), been to naming ceremonies. Maintained an Indian Garden on the university campus where I worked for 20 years and continue to experiment with horticultural techniques using indigenous landraces of maize. This year may well be the second crop failure in a row with high temperatures and virtually no rain in weeks. This is something native horticulturalists had to cope with as well. People had to survive these circumstances. We go to the grocery store. It produces different world views. Perhaps as many as 50,000.000 died as a result of European diseases. Our government has been quite indifferent towards Indians although now the Head of the Department of Interior is Indian. We’ll see how this works out, but looks as though it will be rather different than the complete bungling of the last regime. Although they have had christianity imposed on them for about 300 years they have never attempted to retaliate by imposing their various religions on the rest of the country. Should you be in Washington DC you should visit the Museum of the American Indian (which has a branch in New York City). You might (or might not) have a little respect for them. I find it appalling to read bigotry here. I might say that Canada had a somewhat parallel experience when an ancient skeleton was discovered in southwestern Canada. Discussions with Indians were had, the science explained, and the value of information that would come from the project. There was no problem.

    1. I appreciate your empathy for Native Americans, but the issue is whether they are impeding science based not on facts but on superstitions. Rather than accuse commenters of bigotry, you might try refuting the specific allegations in the Quillette article. You are engaging in ad hominem arguments.

      And really, I don’t see any obvious bigotry against Native Americans here; if I did see it, I’d call it out. What we see it the decrying of superstitious beliefs that stand in the way of scientific understanding. That is, a general dissing of faith.

    2. “I find it appalling to read bigotry here. “

      I find it appalling when people substitute calling other people bigoted instead of actually addressing their argument. Especially from professors who should know better 😉

      Would you possibly address the actual concern that is the subject of Prof. Coyne’s post?

    3. A propos of both this comment and JezGrove@9, an ironic part of Dr. Weiss’ experience was the repatriation of bones and other artifacts from the Ryan Mound site. Her research suggests that at least two different cultures occupied that site, and one was replaced by the other. As a result, some of the artifacts and bones from the older culture seem to have been repatriated to the present-day Muwekma Ohlone descendants of the later invading (one hates to say settler) culture. From the modern anti-racist and anti-colonialist point of view, this seems kinda horrifying.

    4. Wela’lin. It is well to know something about Indigenous culture, first-hand, before expressing opinions on it. Communities that have been attacked for 500 years, whose children were removed by force from their families, and later buried in unmarked mass graves by way of ‘civilizing’ them, will have a more informed perspective on what it’s OK to do.

  13. If to respect the creation myths of Native Americans is to accept or affirm them, then I do disrespect those myths by rejecting them as false; but to do so is by no means to disrespect their entire culture.

  14. I do understand (and agree with) the “pushed around” argument made by Eli Siegel further up in the thread. But note that this concession to Native Americans is largely symbolic (to people who don’t share our science interest in such remains) and of no material value, just like the all the empty acknowledgements of past tribal land ownership, similarly in Australia.
    While I have sympathy for the position that one should gain permission from tribal institutions for some types of archaeological or genetic work, I found the Scientific American passage cited in one of the comments here quite sickening. It’s wrong, it has no place in a popular science magazine, and it’s pure hypocrisy and pretense. The writer does not for one moment believe that traditional religious myths have equal standing as depictions of prehistory with archaeological finds, and all her readers know she doesn’t. It’s also condescending, if not racist, because it assumes that modern Native Americans typically believe in their myths uncritically. THis is not saying that there may not be a kernel of truth in myths (there is, in many), but that is not the point she is making, she pretends there can be two equally valid realities when myth and science contradict each other. She would never precede a passage about European prehistory with such a disclaimer.

    1. It’s wrong, it has no place in a popular science magazine,

      I expect they have a focus group result to justify their position on this in an objective way. The operative word is, of course, “popular”, not “science”.
      It’s one of the reasons I gave up getting SciAm, years ago. Why I’ve dropped NewSci now, as well. There’s not a lot of worthwhile “popular” reading out there – Arxiv is better value.

  15. My first thought is that Native American religions are a lot less powerful than the 3 or 4 main religions. Yet many of the powerful religions lay claim to regions of the world, to ancient mosques or churches, and most of the world agrees with or at least takes these claims very seriously. Another difference is the willingness of many members of these major religions to allow full scientific investigation even while the religions are not rational.

    Personally, I hope science has the upper hand over all religious traditions and beliefs as that’s the only path that benefits all of mankind. Being a group of minor religions, without armies to protect their claims, it’s easy to see why Native American claims are disregarded and laws required to protect, in my opinion, their ignorance.

    But I don’t think their claims are any more ridiculous than those made by other religious groups. Native Americans are trying to re-become and stay visible and accepted. As other religions made their points burning witches or heretics at the stake simply for their beliefs, or even today, killing for honor due to real or imagined sexual misdeeds, it seems to me that Native Americans are making their point that they matter where and how they can. Maybe we can do better in the future in getting the Native American leaders on board with science and also eventually returning the remains that are important in their myths.

      1. There is an old saying that we have all heard many times. Watch what they do, not what they say. And many of us in the atheist class complain about Biden and his speeches as much as anyone. What do you think keeps the Freedom from Religion Foundation going 7 days a week. If you do not know, it is actual attacks on our society from the religious right. From the supreme court down to the small rural school, religion tramples on everyone’s rights to be free of religious influence. So just because old Joe pushes his god in speeches, I watch to make sure he does not push it into our laws or our way of life.

      2. Speaking for myself, your (and your co-author’s) thoughtful video presentation and article are likewise very much appreciated, Ms Weiss – notwithstanding my own jocular and otherwise foolish comments below the line here. Sometimes a ridiculous situation seems to be more bearable if met with (occasionally ill-advised) humour, but no offence is intended.

  16. Speaking of relatively ancient ancestry and ancient DNA, there are surprises, to me at least. The striking one which I’ve mentioned before here is that some persons from as little as about 3,500 years ago are direct ancestors of absolutely every human being alive today. (I realize this sounds unlikely to many–but, for example, the Australian Aboriginal people may have been isolated from Europeans, but they were not sexually isolated from the entire rest of humanity. Similarly, Amazonian, etc. etc.)

    That 3,500 is rather small compared to the 15,000, 20,000, maybe as much as 25,000 years since there were people in what I call America (which stretches all the way down to Patagonia). So it seems quite likely to me that every person living in that large collection of countries in North and South America can (not unrealistically) claim that any body, dug up anywhere there, and say 10,000 or more years old, is very likely an ancestor of theirs.

    It would take a very long time to hold all the different required religious ceremonies before that body can be stuffed under again, were that the policy.

    1. Like others, I appreciate the empathy expressed here for indigenous people and their horrible treatment at the hands of European settlers.

      Could I quibble about your claim of direct ancestors?

      It’s true that the Americas were colonized from Asia several times, and the colonizing populations were small. And it’s likely that the later colonizers replaced the descendants of the previous waves of colonization. The last colonization could have been very recent (like 3500 years), IDK.

      But there is no person in any of those colonizing populations who is the direct ancestor of everyone descended from that population. The reason is complicated but it’s caused by recombination during sexual reproduction. Basically, for any one small part of the genome from all of those descendants (all present-day indigenous people in the Americas), you could trace that part of the genome backward in time to one individual ancestor. But for another part of the genome, tracing backward in time would lead to you to a different single ancestral individual. And those two ancestors might not have lived at the same time. And so on for all the small parts of the genome you might try to trace back.

      The population geneticists call this coalescence. Jerry could explain it better than I can.

      1. I looked up briefly a (possibly poorly written) version of coalescence, but unfortunately I cannot see from either it nor from what you wrote that there is a mistake in what I thought was correct.

        Let me explain both of:

        1/ my source of the claim about all humans today having a common ancestor just a few thousand years ago; and

        2/ a bit about why a form of this ought to extend to the genetic histories of all humans ever to live in any part of North or South America.

        It seems not likely that it is 2/ but definitely not 1/ which you claim coalescence to show cannot be true.

        My argument for 2/ was just that one is looking at a period of at least 15,000 years, whereas Chang below had given a figure of at most 3,600 years for the existence of a common ancestor to every human alive today.

        So if it is something special to America (in the geographical sense, not the irritating USian), most of what follows below would not be relevant. So let me know, and I hope I can understand what your argument really is, at least eventually.

        As to just 1/, my source is simply a popular science book, but by someone who has done scientific research in related areas, though has moved towards a career in writing: namely, Adam Rutherford and his 2017 book “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.”

        top p. 161: “The answer came before high powered DNA sequencing and ancient genetic analysis. Instead it came from mathematics. Joseph Chang is a statistician from Yale….”

        top p. 164: “Chang…concluded in 2003 that the most recent common ancestor for everybody alive today earth lived only around 3,400 years ago.”

        bottom p. 164: “When Chang factored in new, highly conservative variables, such as reducing the number of migrants across the Bering Straits to one person every 10 generations, the age of the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive went up to 3,600 years ago.
        This number may not feel right. When I talk about it in lectures, ….We’re not very good at imagining generational time…”

        So probably it is not 1/ you think to be wrong, but let me know if you believe that somehow an (also mathematical, but DNA based) theory begun a few decades earlier somehow contradicts this published work by the statistician Chang.

        Is it possible you misinterpreted what I had written?

        On the other hand, if somehow 1/ is fine, but my extrapolation 2/, to thinking a similar thing restricted to North and South America, cannot hold because of coalescence, I hope I can get a bit more from you on that; somehow a theory related to the technicalities of DNA does not seem likely to do that. In fact, from the same book:

        middle p. 163: “In 2013 geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop showed that DNA says exactly the same thing as Chang’s mathematical ….”

        Sorry for the length.

        1. Lacking any response, it seems that coalescence, or at least one interpretation of it, is dead in the water here. But surely someone else here knows far more about it than either Mike or me.

          Two caveats to my own somewhat flippant suggestion:
          Firstly, ” … every person …can (not unrealistically) claim that any body, … very likely an ancestor..” should change ‘very likely’ to ‘possibly’.
          And obviously the body would have to be of a sexually mature person dying 10,000 years ago, since he/she would need at least one direct descendent, and preferably older versus younger.

          I thought it might be an enjoyable discussion, if rather technical; and that Rutherford’s section on the matter was really pretty interesting, e.g. including that Charlemagne is an ancestor of every living person with ‘European genes’, perhaps to the chagrin of the many who do personal genealogical research hoping for reflected glory of descent from Charlemagne.

          In any case, the existence of an indigenous 10,000 year old ancestor to every living indigenous more-or-less between the North Pole and Ushaia takes nothing away from the latters’ tribal claims against scientists, though lack of real evidence for those claims often does.

  17. I have to wonder why the SAA is so timorous around a mere opinion expressed in a talk. The only way that may be practical is if they were made to believe that access to historical sites would be turned away if they did not pull the talk.

    1. Things have gotten pretty bad when craven cowardice and zero intellectual integrity is the kindest take you can put on it. But my experience of anthropology and anthropologists is that they’ve bought Woke ideology hook, line and sinker, and believe that advocacy rather than cold-blooded analysis should be the essence of their discipline. Whereas once the field had a component with a serious commitment to research based on ecological systems theory (e.g., the work of Vayda and his students, Marvin Harris, and the neo cultural ecologists following Julian Steward), in recent decades it’s slid down into the pits of hermeneutics and advocacy. The apparent inability of some of its practitioners to understand that recognition of the abominable treatment of aboriginal cultures in no way entails that you accept their creation myths (or treat them publicly—whatever you may actually think—as on a par with what geology, paleontology and genetics reveal about the peopling of the North American continent) speaks for itself. Franz Boas must be spinning in his grave.

      1. Exactly. Cultural anthropology now seems dead as a serious intellectual pursuit, having been one of the first disciplines to go woke (long before that usage was coined — I began noticing its special pleading and double standards in online forums more than fifteen years ago). Physical anthropology is a completely separate, and for the most part still properly scientific, discipline, but is under enormous pressure from wokery. But anthropology in the largest sense, the study of humans, claims archaeology as one of its branches, and one of the most striking developments of the past thirty years, as archaeology becomes a steadily more scientifically based discipline, is that the daughter discipline has now outpaced the mother: physical anthropology, especially palaeoanthropology, should now really be thought of as a specialism of archaeology, not the other way around.

  18. Most of the postings on this thread correctly point out how serious this case of corruption in academia is. And then there is the larger problem of how young people today are being miseducated about basic concepts of anthropology related to the peopling of the New World, archaeology, population genetics and evolution. The corruption of science education today has spread very deeply, now beyond Cultural Studies and into the very departments of STEM. Readers who don’t see the problem clearly are losing sight of how serious this cancellation was. It was a heinous act of CENSORSHIP suppressing a SCIENTIFIC REPORT, perpetrated by a professional association, by persons who hold appointment in a university science department in the United States. Thank you to Elizabeth and James for reposting the presentation!

  19. It always amazes me how modern people can quite reasonably reject the tenets of the major western religions, but view any vaguely native belief completely uncritically.
    In our area, there is a pretty good bit of money being made by people peddling native rituals. The rituals come with vague promises of spiritual or physical healing, and the people hawking them have very tenuous connections with any of the groups that allegedly produced the subject rituals.
    I suspect those rituals and beliefs, even as performed today within the originating tribes, have very little in common with those practiced by their ancestors a few centuries ago, as oral traditions are hard to pass on consistently without changes and adaptations. That, combined with constant warfare and environmental stresses lead me to believe that static belief systems were pretty hard to maintain, even before the Spanish showed up.
    It is not rational to tailor the practices of hard science to accommodate the claims of what some native activists claim their traditions require, any more than we should follow the guidance of any other religious or political group.

  20. It always amazes me how modern people can quite reasonably reject the tenets of the major western religions, but view any vaguely native belief completely uncritically.

    Seems to me there are orders of magnitude more Americans who’ve fallen for the cynical con-games being run by Christian televangelists than who’ve ever gone in for any kind of Native-American mojo.

    1. Well, sure. But most of those people were likely raised Christian, either as evangelicals, or moved into fundamentalism from some other related franchise.
      I find it hard to fault someone who grew up with a set of religious beliefs, and never outgrew them. I agree that once they start writing checks to Earnest Angley, an intervention is appropriate.

      I think the folks I was referring to are a different sort than that. They seem better educated, and have abandoned Christianity or Judaism because it just does not seem believable to them. That is good and reasonable, but they show up here, absolutely willing to accept and pay for the healing services and spirit guidance of ( just as one example of many) a couple of White people from California who sell a weird combination of Mayan and Lakota shamisim, “evolutionary astrology” (?), and crystal healing.
      Sadder than that are the folks with native heritage, or Hispanics passing as such, who sell more or less the same hokum. Some of it can even be dangerous, as in the sweat lodges. Or when people seek out shamanic intervention instead of the conventional medicine that could actually help them.

      So many people show up and are willing to accept all of it without the least bit of skepticism. They are completely willing to believe that by paying the people from California $900, they will be initiated into ancient and sacred secrets of the Navajo elders, and will be spiritually and physically healed through the unique wisdom they receive there.
      Honestly, some of the claims these people make are completely outlandish.
      I see how that parallels the televangelist pitch, but the people calling in their prayer gifts to Jimmy Swaggart are people who have been told since childhood that the only way to salvation is through JC.

      Of course, people convert to all sorts of religions all the time. But the way they fawn over anything claimed to be indigenous seems different and absurd. These same people, if they were approached to take a “personality test” would at least present a bit of hesitation that the auditor would have to work to overcome.
      Or at least that is what I get from my observations.

  21. The sop to Native American beliefs is made out of guilt over past treatment of Native Americans. That’s not a great reason for doing it, but realizing that helps explain what is going on. We can’t really accept their claim of finding spiritual significance in some petrified bones, but we can choose to allow it as a gesture of reconciliation. It does seem like something that could worked out a little better over time.

  22. It would be interesting to hear David Reich’s opinion about that lecture.

    Since there may be a few here unfamiliar with the ancient DNA literature, perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the 2018 “Who We Are and How We Got Here” by David and Eugenie Reich has a good chapter (#7) on indigenous of North and South America (I cannot bring myself to use the nonsensical “Indian”, nor the hardly uniquely designating “Native American”, quite a few other people being native i.e. born in the place referred to). It has lots of discussion of the difficulty of getting data from US, though not from other countries in (North and South) America.

  23. This reminds me of a similar “problem” in Japan where they won’t allow their oldest gravesites to be scientifically analyzed “disturbed” for cultural reasons. Many say it’s because it will reveal a “too close” relationship with Koreans or other ethnic groups the Japanese regard as “inferior” with a history of discrimination. Asian cultures are some of the most racist in the world, especially those in power and those still living in their ‘homeland’. Asian peoples are able to escape this to some extent by moving to other countries and integrating. It’s a fact many don’t like to talk about. I have a lot of anecdotal evidence to support such a claim, but not something I care to pursue. I always hope that science and logic and critical thinking will prevail, but against cultural norms and practices and the muckraking of ancestral facts as taboo, many spurned on by religion, even science seems like a toothpick trying to reveal an ancient tar pit. The pride of humans and status quo is such an impediment to progress. Face palm.

  24. “But if remains can be traced to a specific tribe or group of tribes, showing the bones to be more closely related to that group than to other tribes, one might consider tribal claims to be valid”

    I disagree PCC (E.). Mere descent (certainly beyond a few generations – where the ancestors aren’t “family”) shouldn’t give property rights to decedents.

    Should you and I have legal title over our ancestors’ bones in Eastern Europe? Or ANY Jewish bones they dig up there? No!

    This whole kerfuffle reminds me of the “sacred sites” argument against the new Hawaiian observatory and how phony that whole argument is. Magical fairy stories of people in the past should never trump science and advancement.
    D.A.
    NYC

  25. And up through the ground come a bubblin crude.

    Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.

    Well the first thing you know ol Jed’s a millionaire,

    The Beverly Hillbillies theme song

    Seems to me that nobody demanded ol’ Jed prove he was a direct descendant of the plants and animals that formed that oil. Property laws gave that land, and in particular its underground resources, to Jed.

    Similarly, treaties established the rights of local Native American tribes over human remains (dating to before the treaty) in certain areas. In my view, those rights should be honored.

  26. I read through this a few times and I don’t see where the Native American groups get any direct and immediate benefit from scientists looking at these remains. So I have to wonder what is the argument for allowing the science to proceed

    1. That’s like saying that there is no randomized controlled trial for parachutes, so there’s no argument for using parachutes to prevent death while jumping out of a plane.

      Science proceeding should be the default action. It’s the halting of scientific inquiry that should be justified, not least because this is often used by those in power to hide facts they don’t like.

      1. Well that certainly works well for the folk who are in control of science but I think it should be part of the self determination goals of indigenous people in countries where they have been dispossessed and marginalised to be able to say yes or no in such cases. Otherwise it’s just a continuation of colonialism with only lip service to the notions of freedom, pluralism and autonomy.

        1. The point (here, at least) is that those who they call their ancestors aren’t even related to them genetically. They’re asking for rights to the body of someone who isn’t related to them. Why should their requests be honored?

          1. Well it’s not as if the researchers are related to the bodies either but they have rights due to invasion, dispossession and colonialism. If DNA is what gives you rights to say what happens to the remains then no one should be touching them.

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