Pandaemonium

SCIENCE, MYTH AND HISTORY

raven

This is the third in a series of extracts that I have been running from my book Strange Fruit. The extracts tell the story of ‘Kennewick Man’ and explore what the debate around a 9000-year old skeleton reveals about current ideas of culture and race. The first extract looked at questions cultural ownership, the second at the issue of race. This third extract links the two in a discussion of the relationship between science, myth and history, and the way that politics and prejudice have shaped many scientific claims about the ancient history of North America – and also many of the critiques of such claims .


From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp 230-239

Kennewick Man was no wandering European. He was not a white man of any description. He was simply different from all modern peoples. So what does the belief that he was white say about the scientific study of human history?

Scientific stories about the peopling of the Americas have long been shaped by politics, prejudice, and straightforward racism. When Europeans first arrived in the New World they conjured up wonderful tales of Indian origins. For the sixteenth century Dominican priest, historian and archaeologist Diego Duran, Indians were the Lost Tribe of Israel. Ignatius Donnelly, the Irish-American writer, lawyer and politician, suggested that they originated in the fabled lost continent of Atlantis.  Others thought that Indians were descended from a wandering group of Europeans or Asians – Egyptians, Vikings, Phoenicians, Basques, Greeks, Mongols, Romans, Persians and Japanese were all deemed suitable candidates.

In the early nineteenth century, as the pioneering explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark tramped across America on their epic journey westwards, they came across a number of huge earthen mounds and hillforts. Subsequent expeditions reported earthworks shaped like birds, bears and snakes. Inside, there were ancient graves often overflowing with strange and magnificent artwork. Few white Americans were willing to accept that the ancestors of contemprorary Native Americans were capable of building such impressive constructions. So the myth of the Moundbuilders grew – the mounds were the work of the first Americans, an ancient and now-vanished white civilisation that had been exterminated by the Indians.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the discovery in Europe of several archaeological sites in which ancient stone tools were found together with the fossilised bones of extinct animals helped overturn the Biblical idea of human origins and led to the acceptance of the notion not just of human antiquity but also of a human prehistory, and of a ‘Stone Age’ when human had not yet advanced enough to use metal, but had to make tools from flint and bone. In America however, the most influential figures in anthropology – in particular William Henry Holmes, Head Curator of Anthropology at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute, and his student Ales Hrdlicka, who was to became the nation’s leading racial scientist of the early twentieth century – refused to countenance the idea that Native Americans could be an ancient people and denounced any and all discoveries of ‘Stone Age’ tools as fakes. Critics of Holmes and Hrdickla, both at the time and since, have suggested that they acted as a kind of ‘paleopolice’, the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday of American archeology, driving out of town anyone with different views.

clovis points

The discovery in the 1920s and the 1930s of human tools among the fossilised remains of extinct animals in two New Mexican towns, Folsom and Clovis, finally led scientists to accept the idea that the Americas, too, had possessed a Stone Age. The culture that had produced these ancient tools came to be called Clovis, and over the next half century archaeologists discovered a number of Clovis sites across America, dating between 11,500 and 10,900 years ago. The so-called ‘Clovis First’ argument – which suggested that the Clovis were the first Americans – came to dominate American archaeology. It suggested that these first Americans came from Asia around 12,000 years ago across Beringia, an ancient landmass which connected Siberia to Alaska but which has since been covered by the oceans.

Then, Clovis-style fluted points were discovered in South America, as far south as Tierra del Fuego and as ancient as 11,000 years old. This meant that, if the Clovis First theory was right, the first Americans must have travelled from northern Alaska to the southern most tip of South America in a few hundred years, a speed of colonisation far faster than that found anywhere else in the world. In response to this conundrum the archaeologist Paul Martin developed in the 1960s what became called the ‘Overkill’ theory.  One of the peculiarities of the Americas is that there are so few big mammals. Once cheetahs, mammoths, mastodons, lions, camels, giant beavers and sabre-tooth tigers had all roamed the continent. Why had they vanished? Martin suggested that the invading Clovis had wiped them out. A handful of Eurasian hunters – perhaps as few as 25 males  – had, Martin suggested, entered the Americas across Beringia around 11,000 years ago and swept through the continent at breathtaking pace, slaughtering virtually everything that moved across their path.

Martin’s thesis caused a sensation. It appeared to reconcile the Clovis First thesis with the evidence from South American excavations. Its political implications only added to its notoriety. Conservatives loved the idea that Native Americans were not the Noble Savages of myth but seemingly ignoble ones with a bent for mass killing.  The National Rifle Association was thrilled that big game hunting was rooted in deep American history. The idea that humans were responsible for destroying much of the American fauna struck a chord with the nascent environmental movement.  Native Americans, on the other hand, detested their portrayal as bloodthirsty killers, viewing it as yet another assault on the moral values of their people. For many South American scholars, ‘a rapid-fire blitzkrieg by Clovis hunters’ seemed, in archaeologist James Adovasio’s words, ‘a bit too much like a familiar story in Latin America: Yankee imperialism.’

mammoth-hunt-Old-Vero-Man-site

In the end, it was not the political implications but the scientific evidence that did for Martin’s theory. Clovis tools were in use for just over half a millennia, between 11,500 and 10,900 years ago.  The great North American beasts, however, disappeared over a much longer period. No cheetah remains have been found less than 17,000 years old; the last mammoth disappeared about 10,500 years; lions lasted for another 1000 years; while the sabre tooth tiger only became extinct around 9,500 ago. For whatever reason these creatures vanished, it is unlikely to have been because of Clovis über-hunters.

Almost as soon as the ‘Clovis First’ thesis became established, some people began suggesting that the first Americans had arrived on the Continent even earlier. From the late 1930s onwards archaeologists announced the discovery of hundreds of sites supposedly demonstrating human presence prior to the Clovis. Virtually all were dismissed as frauds. Frustrated pre-Clovis enthusiasts pointed their finger at a new posse of archaeological sheriffs, the intellectual descendants of Holmes and Hrdlicka, who patrolled the Clovis frontier, gunning down any evidence that the Americas might have been home to an earlier people.

After nearly half a century of searching, archaeologists finally found definitive evidence that the Americas were populated before the Clovis. In the 1970s, archaeologist Tom Dillehay, then teaching at the Southern University of Chile, began excavating a site on the banks of Chinchihuapi Creek in southern Chile, that came to be known as Monte Verde.  Dillehay discovered a whole Stone Age village, and evidence of a people with a complex social structure and a relatively sophisticated lifestyle. Most astonishingly radiocarbon dating showed it to be 13,500 years old – a full millennia before the earliest known Clovis occupation of North America. Dillehay spent nearly two decades excavating the site and trying to persuade a sceptical archaeological community that it was not a fraud. He has been accused, fellow archaeologist James Adavasio observes, ‘of virtually every lapse an archaeologist can make; in fact he has been slandered and libelled by colleagues here in America who went so far as accusing him of faking evidence.’ If he had to do it all over again, Dillehay once told Adavasio, he wouldn’t; it wasn’t worth the agony. Eventually, in 1997 a blue-ribbon panel of archaeologists, including many vocal sceptics, inspected the site. All agreed that the site was, as Tom Dillehay claimed, some 13,500 years old and that people had inhabited the New World even before the Clovis.

Many see the debate about Kennewick Man as the latest stage in this long history of scientific origin stories that have been shaped by politics and prejudice as much as by evidence. The key theme in the scientific study of deep American history, many argue, is the attempt to deny Native Americans their history and heritage and to fashion instead a ‘white’ vision of the Americas. ‘Since the colonisation of the Americas’, the anthropologist Chris Kortright claims, ‘there has been a desire to historically connect the “old World” with the “New World”.  Intellectuals and Academics have built their names and careers for themselves by connecting the two worlds; at the same time these individuals reinforce the ideologies of colonisation and racial hierarchy.’ The debate about Kennewick Man, he believes, shows that ‘this practice is still strong’. Not only do some scientists view Kennewick Man as white but some have also claimed that Clovis was really a European culture. The archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley have suggested that the earliest Americans came out of not Siberia but Iberia.  They point out that Clovis tools are very similar to those of the Solutrean culture that occupied south-western France and the Iberian peninsula between 25,000 and 19,700 years ago. The oldest and most numerous Clovis sites are to be found in south-eastern states of America – the ones closest to southern Europe. And during the last Ice Age – roughly the time when the Clovis first appeared in the New World – sea levels were much lower and ice-free parts of Europe were just within 1400 miles from the coastline of  North America. ‘It wouldn’t take too much for an intelligent person to learn how to handle the ocean and perhaps even get to North America’, Stanford suggests. But, he cautions, ‘this is really an off the wall kind of idea right now but it’s one I don’t think we should overlook’.

red earth white lies

For Native American scholar and activist Vine Deloria any such speculation is politically suspect.  ‘By making us immigrants to North America’, he argues, scientists ‘are able to deny the fact that we were the full, complete and total owners of this continent. They are able to see us simply as earlier interlopers and therefore throw back at us the accusation that we had simply found North America a little earlier than they had.’ Deloria objects not simply to the theory that the first Americans came from Europe but to any theory that appears to deny Native Americans their ‘ownership’ of the continent.  Hence he rejects not just the Iberian connection but the Siberian connection too. The Bering Land Bridge theory is as unacceptable as the Solutrean connection theory because it too makes Native Americans into migrants. Science, Deloria believes, ‘should drop the pretense of having absolute authority with regard to human origins and begin looking for some other kind of explanation that would include the tradition and memories of non-Western peoples’.

And there is the irony. Critics such as Deloria denounce scientific origins stories as being shaped more by prejudice than by evidence. Yet Deloria rejects any scientific theory, based on any evidence, that is not politically correct. Far from challenging politicised science, postcolonial critics such as Deloria want to make all knowledge political.

Scientific stories of human origins may be, and often have been, shaped by politics. Yet at their heart lies evidence. It is the actuality of the material world that constrains the shape of a scientific history. As new evidence accumulates, so new, and better, theories arise. The discoveries at Folsom and Clovis overturned the belief that the first Americans had arrived relatively recently.  The Clovis First account was in turn overturned by new discoveries in Monte Verde and elsewhere. Paul Martin’s ‘Overkill’ thesis generated huge controversy because of its apparent political implications. It was finally killed off not by politics but by fact and reasoning. It is true that in each case the debates were fractious and much more was involved than just the facts – political prejudice, personal ambition and academic inertia all played their part. Yet what made these discussions of the early peopling of the Americas scientific was that it was a discussion of the facts. Facts certainly do not speak for themselves. But in science the facts inevitably anchor the debate.

Religious origin stories, or those rooted in folklore, are, on the other hand, anchored not by facts but by faith. They are believed in spite of the facts not because of them. The facts of evolution do not change the story of Genesis one whit, nor do the facts of the Asian origin of Native Americans matter to those who believe the Indian oral tradition. That is why, unlike scientific histories that change as the facts change, religious origin stories are set in stone. That is also why there is inevitable conflict between traditional origin stories and scientific accounts.  For many such conflict creates a moral dilemma. The biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks suggests that the Kennewick Man debate highlights ‘scientists’ belief they have a right – perhaps even a duty! – to delegitimise other peoples’ ideas about who they are and where they came from.’ This he calls ‘the problem of colonial genetics in a postcolonial age’. Marks condemns the way that ‘self-righteous, self-interested, self-proclaimed and slightly paranoid advocates of science’ often ‘rewrite origin narratives and identities of other peoples on the basis of partial, ambiguous and dubiously interpreted evidence’.

The Trickster Coyote

Marks is no postmodernist or irrationalist. Quite the opposite – he stands in the Enlightenment humanist tradition and at the heart of much of his work is the debunking of irrational myths that often pass for scientific theory. He is also a personal friend. Yet, there is in Marks’ charge sheet against the Kennewick Man scientists an echo of the Romantic complaint about Enlightenment rationalism. His comments reveal again how progressives, who in the past would have welcomed the scientific challenge to traditional stories and histories, now wish to shore up those traditional accounts against the onward march of scientific reason. It is a view that raises some interesting questions. Should, for instance, Darwinists refrain from promoting the theory of evolution because it ‘deligitimises’ the Christian (and indeed all religious and many non-religious) origin stories? Is it to be ‘self-righteous’ and ‘self-interested’ to propose that the first Americans may have come from Asia via the Bering Land Bridge? Marks suggests that Creationism should be ‘acknowledged and engaged (rather than accepted or combated)’. It is difficult to know, however, how it is possible for rationalists to ‘engage’ with Creationism without combating it.

A different view of the relationship between science and tradition comes from Joallyn Archambault, Director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institute and an member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. ‘I am’, she writes, ‘personally familiar with Sioux religious and cultural traditions and I have great pride in my Indian heritage’. She has ‘personally participated in all of the major traditional ceremonies appropriate for a Sioux woman of my age and position in life, including a vision quest and a Sun Dance.’ In an affidavit to the judge considering the Kennwick Man case, she wrote that while ‘I respect the traditional religious and cultural beliefs of my tribe and those of other tribes’, such respect ‘does not mean that we must accept all of those beliefs as invariably accurate statements of historic or scientific fact’:

To do so would be contrary to commonsense and what we know about the world from other sources of knowledge.  For example origin stories… vary widely from tribe to tribe. Depending upon the tribe, creation may be the work of Coyote, a bird, a first man, a turtle and so on. Even within the same tribe, traditional beliefs can include multiple creation stories. For example, three different creation stories were accepted in my father’s tribe when I was a child… ordinary logic tells us that not all of these different stories or versions can be true, at least in a factual sense. And we should not expect them to be. The purpose of origin stories is to provide metaphysical, rather than historic or scientific, explanations… Like other forms of great literature they should be interpreted symbolically rather than literature.

For Archambault, ‘the Kennewick skeleton should be made available for study so we can learn as much from it as possible. The past is important because it can help us to teach us who we are and how we fit into the world.’ She adds that ‘the anti-science and anti-intellectual arguments espoused by some Native American religious and political factions do not represent the views of all, or even the majority of, American Indians. Most American Indians are as interested about the past as other people. They want to know the truth about the past, and they should be entitled to do so.’

kennewick_reconstruction

Knowledge, For Archambault, is a public affair and the property of all. Identity, on the other hand, is a private matter.  Traditional stories of a people’s history may be important for cultural and symbolic reasons but there is no reason that science should defer to them. American Indians, she argues, ‘have as much right as anyone else to be exposed to different ideas and to make up their own minds about what they believe or do not believe.’ For Archambault, there is no such thing as an American Indian culture. Some Indians may draw on traditional stories, other on scientific knowledge, still others on both. American Indians, in other words, are no different from other people, and no less diverse in their views and identities than other people.

For Jonathan Marks, it is not enough to say, as Archambault does, that science tells us factual truths and origins stories are like works of literature. The importance of origins stories is that they help define questions of ‘morality, ultimate justice, good and evil, happiness and what lies beyond death’ and in so doing they shape the identity of a culture and its relationship to the rest of the world. Origin stories, he argues, ‘are culturally integrated to a far greater degree than science’. He worries that ‘science’s standard operating procedure is to take some aspect of new knowledge and to substitute it for whatever alternative existed before it – generally without looking for or dealing with the broader implications or cultural and symbolic connections.’  Scientific truth, in other words, may not matter as much as social cohesion and cultural survival.

This, of course, is a nod to the classic Romantic view of culture and knowledge: knowledge as culturally bound; culture as a bounded entity; the importance of social cohesion and cultural survival; the significance of identity to the survival of a culture and a people. These sentiments, as we have seen, lie at the heart of the modern pluralist view of culture and knowledge and, by creating an fixation with identity, have helped resurrect ideas of racial difference in a new form. And it is a fixation with identity that has shaped the debate on Kennewick Man. On the one side, opponents of the scientific study of Kennewick Man suggest that the demands of science are must defer to the needs of cultural identity.  On the other side, many have hailed the scientific study of Kennewick Man as revealing his true (white) identity. Kennewick Man is no more a white man than he is a Native American.  But the belief that he is has been fuelled less by old-fashioned racism than by the new-fangled politics of identity – the same as that which drives critics of the scientific study of Kennewick to claim him as Native American.

The images, from top down, are a Tlingit raven, important in many Native American creation stories; a collection of Clovis points;  a painting of Native Americans hunting a mammoth (source unknown); cover of Vine Deloria’s book ‘Red Earth, White Lies’; the Trickster Coyote, an important figure in the Native American oral tradition; and a facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man.

Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008)

strange-fruit

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Andrew Anthony, Observer

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Steve Cave, Financial Times

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