Monday, July 27, 2015

The truth about Kennewick Man leaves behind a ship of scientific fools

Scientists with “revolutionary” or “revisionist” theories sometimes get carried away with their own arrogance. Take for example Richard Jantz, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Jantz has this “thing” about head size and its relation to “intelligence,” and it should come as no surprise that at a socially conservative institution (I know—I was there), that he would target the liberal philosophy of the most influential modern anthropologist, Franz Boas. Boas championed “cultural relativism,” believing that the “evolutionary” view of human development was nothing more than a rationalization for racism, and that the concept of race was itself a cultural construct. His view was that anthropological beliefs must not be assumed, but that anthropologists must take a “holistic” view of peoples and cultures and their relationship with their environment over time, rather than merely making judgments based on empirical observation and static numbers that fail to explain a creature as complex as man. 

Jantz and his co-conspirator, Corey Sparks, published a study intended to debunk Boas’ research on cranial plasticity. Boas examined over 17,000 subjects in the U.S. to determine if a change in environment affected the cranial size of children of immigrants from Europe, specifically those born ten years before immigrating to the U.S., and those born ten years after their parents immigrated. Boas’ research suggested that environment did create such a change. Jantz and Sparks denied that this was the case, arguing that any differences were too minor to be used as evidence to support Boas’ findings. 

But other scientists repudiated Jantz’s conclusions, arguing that he deliberately misread his own data, which implied support for Boas’ findings. These scientists implied that Jantz was guilty of intellectual misconduct by misrepresenting the nature of Boas’ research; in keeping with his holistic view of anthropology, Boas’ intent was to determine the effects of a changed physical environment and the quality of nutrition had on prenatal development; Jantz and Sparks ignored this, merely making superficial determinations based on length of residency in the U.S. Jantz totally discounted how undernourished mothers and other physical and environmental factors affect the development of  unborn children—and in turn their development into adulthood.  

Jantz, perhaps not surprisingly, joined Smithsonian Institute anthropologist Doug Owsley in publishing a book that argued that the fabled “Kennewick Man” was not Amerindian, but something else. Originally, Jim Chatter’s erroneous claim that the skull found in the Columbia River valley in 1996 had "Caucasian” features had the giddy media all aflutter, and crackpots who believed that Ancient European Ones were responsible for the construction of Mayan and Aztec structures came out of the woodwork—with theories no more credible than those who also insist that space aliens actually built them. Long-bearded Norse cultural types were particularly fanatical in insisting that Kennewick Man was one of their own. Local Amerindian tribes also claimed him as one of their “ancient ones,” but in order to justify ignoring the law on the treatment of Native American remains, it had to be suggested that the bones were not of Amerindian origin. 

Because the Smithsonian Institute is the “official” arbiter of all things Americana, the federal courts gave in to Owsley’s demand that his hand-picked team of researchers with their own political agenda conduct an examination of the bones. Owsley’s team, which had initially sided with the European origin theory, essentially conducted their study in isolation, and revealing no data for or against potential findings for peer review. Eventually Owsley announced to the world the bizarre claim that while Kennewick Man was apparently not European in origin, he “most closely” resembled the Ainu peoples of Japan. This “finding,” unsubstantiated by DNA testing and based on the subjective view of a single specimen, was quickly eaten-up by the media, with the primary story line being that Kennewick Man was not Amerindian—although that itself was a subjective assessment. 

Since Owsley’s findings were clearly subjective and no data to justify his conclusion was made available at the time, there was some scholarly doubts (particularly by Europeans-were-here-first types), and in late 2012 he was forced by the Army Corps of Engineers to release his supporting data, since local Amerindians tribes were hounding it to release the bones (currently in the custody of the University of Washington’s Burke Museum) for reburial. In the subsequent book in which Jantz co-edited, a slew of European “ancient one” theorists, cranks and ecentrics were permitted to submit their two-bit about how Kennewick Man with his narrower skull must surely be that of an “ancient seafarer” who happened to get lost at sea and somehow wound up in Pacific Northwest. Of course, there is no evidence that the Ainu peoples 10,000 years ago—or any peoples, for that matter—had the seafaring technology to cross an ocean. I’m sure these claimants would cry “foul,” but that is essentially what their claims amount to, and they are simply not credible. 
In the meantime, “diffusionist” theories have gained coinage. These theories claim that certain ancient artifacts, art and constructions found in the Americas suggest European origin—a “vanished race” idea that dates back to the mid-19th century—or at least a view that Amerindians were too “barbaric” or stupid to be their creators. Claims that Solutrean spear points found in France resemble that of the Clovis points found in the Americas suggest an ancient race of white people residing here before the Amerindians forgets two uncomfortable facts: The Solutrean spear-point period ended 6,000 years before the first dated Clovis points, and it is absurd to suggest that it is impossible for such simple tools to be created independently by two different cultures.

Such concepts have muddled public (not to mention scientific) perceptions; pop science journals like Scientific American, and “serious” TV programming found on the History Channel and National Geographic portray America’s first inhabitants as having clearly Caucasian features, not even an Asian in sight. The racial—and racist—underpinnings of these portrayals would deny Amerindians of not just their history, but even their right to be recognized as the original inhabitants of the Americas. America was “white” all the time. That various “discoveries” of mainly “Norse” origin (particularly those found in the central regions of the U.S.) that have turned out to be frauds and forgeries have not extinguished the “quest” to find the “real” original inhabitants of the Americas.  

That is until now, or one may conclude so. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark were allowed to extract a DNA sample from Kennewick Man using the latest technology; previously it had been suggested the bones were too damaged to supply any usable DNA. It is presumed that this study was permitted so that an entirely “independent” team of scientists without a personal agenda could uncover the truth of the origins of Kennewick Man. 

When Owsley made his very unscientific announcement in 2012, the UK’s Daily Mail published this headline:

9,300-year-old Kennewick Man skeleton found in Washington 'was NOT a Native American but more likely Polynesian'

Now, 30 months later, the Daily Mail published this headline based on the Copenhagen researchers’ very scientific findings:

Kennewick Man WAS a Native American: DNA from 8,500 year old skeleton reignites debate over who controls remains

Geneticist Eske Willerslev found that while some people have claimed that Kennewick Man “has Caucus traits, so he could be related to Europeans,” the truth was that he was genetically closer to Amerindians than any other population group—including “Polynesians” or the Ainu. While the researchers could not isolate any current Amerindian tribe as the direct “ancestor” of Kennewick Man, there was no denying that his closest present “relatives” genetically are Amerindians, perhaps diverging from a “common ancestor” shortly before his life ended on the banks of the Columbia River.

The independent researchers also sought to answer the question as to why Owsley’s team could have been so mistaken in their own findings. It was concluded that it was absurd to take a single individual of such ancient origin and associate it to a current population group without proper research. Doing proper research was the error that Jantz made in rebutting Boas’ cranial study. Of course, Owsley defends himself from looking like a fool by claiming that the new findings only lead to more “questions”—although only ones he would prefer not to answer.

But the most obvious answer to the question is that deep within the mind of white supremacists (or the like-minded who claim not to be racists), there is still this self-conscious desire to rid oneself of all notion of guilt. This land once belonged to Amerindians. Europeans had their own land, and they came over here and literally stole what belonged to someone else, in the sense that they didn’t pay the original owners anything for it, just “took” it. Now they desperately seek to “prove” it belonged to whites all along, and don’t need to be “burdened” with the idea that they have and are now ravishing a land that was never theirs to begin with—and are today attempting to deny it to other descendants of this hemisphere’s original inhabitants who have greater claim to it than Euro-Americans.

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