Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Archaeology and Victimhood

Even archaeology is political these days and it slows down research. Muslim Arabs discourage Israeli Jews from excavating ancient sites like the Temple Mount because findings might bolster Jewish claims to disputed territory. Christians and Jews tend to be more open to whatever may emerge from archaeological digs. They’re happier when the research bolsters Biblical writings, but they don’t try to re-bury evidence that would conflict with religious teachings. Radical Muslims, however, threaten to kill anyone whoever even suggests finding that would cast doubt on one or more of their teachings. For Palestinian Arabs, fostering the view that they’re victims of Israeli “oppression” is their most potent political weapon, so historical evidence of Israeli settlement predating Palestinians by millennia threatens them.Yours truly at the Temple Mount in 2007

That’s true for many Indian tribes here in America too, unfortunately. It seemed to begin with a remarkable find of a nearly-complete, 9000-year-old skeleton in the Columbia River in Washington state. The political controversy in this case is racial because features of the skull don’t comply with those of Indian or “Native American” skulls found previously. Instead, it appears Caucasian and that threatens the accepted narrative of American Indian tribes who claim to be the first people in America. So what is a European-looking, Caucasian man doing in Washington state 9000 years ago with a stone spearpoint embedded in his hip bone?

It was too much for the local Umatilla Indians who insisted that it be turned over to them for re-burial. They claimed that if the skeleton was found on land they considered their ancestral territory, Kennewick Man (as the skeleton was named) must be their ancestor. That’s highly questionable given that American Indian tribes were constantly warring on one another and taking over each other’s territories for centuries prior to European conquests.

Nine thousand years is a long time in human history. It’s well into the prehistoric era, which means that no records - neither written nor traditional - exist to document anything from that time anywhere. So, for the Umatilla to claim that a skeleton over nine thousand years old would be Umatilla is ridiculous - something only “progressive” bureaucrats in the federal government would consider credible. Four or five other ancient skulls with Caucasian features found in other parts of the United States have been reexamined since Kennewick Man came to light, but local Indian tribes on those locations are trying to re-bury those as well. The “First People” myths are extremely important to modern Indian tribes.There’s big money in victimhood here in the early 21st century. Indians get billions in benefits from taxpayers, not to mention lucrative casino licenses, mostly because of treaties and the widespread perception that Indian tribes were peaceful and “green” until their lands were stolen by Europeans centuries ago. Uncovering archaeological data which questions that narrative is very threatening.

Evidence that Europeans might have been here almost 10,000 years ago is bad enough, but Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford published a book in February of this year theorizing that Europeans may have settled in North America thousands of years before the first “Native Americans” arrived. I’ve been reading Stanford’s “Across Atlantic Ice” and it’s quite fascinating. He and colleague Bruce Bradley make a convincing case that ancient Solutrean people from around the Pyrenees in southern France and northern Spain came to North America more than 20,000 years ago during the height of the last ice age.Altamira bison

Solutreans were among the people who produced the remarkable paintings found in the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain as well as those of Lascoux in southern France. It is Solutrean stonework, however, that provides the bulk of the evidence that they may have migrated to the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States. The way Solutreans shaped various lithic (stone) tools was quite similar to how early “Clovis” cultures made their tools in North America.Dennis Stanford with Clovis lithics

Stanford’s and Bradley’s hypothesis threatens many academics as well as Indians because they’ve written countless books and articles insisting there were no humans in North or South America before Clovis cultures 14,000 years ago - and that all Indian ancestors came across a land bridge from Asia where the Bering Strait is now. There’s also biological evidence in the form of mitochondrial DNA of a connection between Solutrean people and certain Indian groups in North America, but Stanford and Bradley didn’t choose to cover that in “Across Atlantic Ice.”The question of how people came to North America has fascinated me since I was a boy. Although political controversy interests me too, it’s impeding research in this area and I wish it would go away. It won’t, of course, so I’ve had to weave it into this column. The next time I visit the subject though, I’ll try to stick to the science, which is absolutely fascinating for history geeks like me.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work, Tom.
Harvey in North Baldwin

Alex said...

Is there anything in the book about finding similar skulls anywhere else that would suggest land-migration? It seems incredible that people would have the technology necessary to cross the Atlantic that long ago.

Tom McLaughlin said...

There's some speculation that the Kennewick Man skull resembles those of a tribe from a northern island of Japan. I read a book by James Chatters, the forensic anthropologist who was first to examine the skull, and he noticed that resemblance.

A projectile point made of a material found only around the Pyrenees was discovered near a cellar hole in the Chesapeake Bay area, but it could have been lugged over by some colonial. If it were found in situ, it would have constituted proof of Solutrean migration.

"Across Atlantic Ice" is fascinating. I recommend it.

The theory is that they hunted seals, etc. along the ice margin during the height of the last glaciation between Europe and North America and watercraft of the type used by Inuits would have been sufficient.

mary ellen mcewen said...

this is so interesting thanks

Heather Salazar said...

I am a professor of philosophy in ethics and absolutely appalled by your insensitivity to the people being disrespected in these excavations.