Politics & Policy

Bones of Contention

A bad bill would throttle American archaeology.

If a lucky paleoanthropologist ever unearths hobbit bones on federal land, scientists won’t get to study them–at least not if Sen. John McCain and his allies have their way.

I’m not joking about hobbits. Really.

You may recall the astonishing reports last year about the discovery of Homo floresiensis, a previously unknown species of human that lived as recently as 13,000 years ago–more recently than the Neanderthals. And unlike the Neanderthals, who are usually described as nasty and brutish, the Flores people were short. A fully grown adult would have been about the same size as one of our kindergartners. When a team of Australian and Indonesian scientists found the first Homo floresiensis, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, its members started referring to her as a “hobbit.” The nickname stuck.

How did she get to be so short? And why does John McCain care?

The first question is easy to answer. In biology, there’s a form of natural selection known as “island dwarfing.” Take a species, put it on an island, and watch it shrink over time. This has led to such oxymoronic phenomena as pygmy mammoths, and the general trend has been observed all over the planet, from Flores in southeast Asia to Malta in the Mediterranean Sea to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean.

It also has been documented here in the United States–on the Channel Islands, off the coast of southern California. If hobbit bones were to turn up on Santa Rosa, however, we might never have a chance to learn about them.

That’s because McCain has proposed adding two words to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law Congress passed 15 years ago to defend American Indian burial sites and cultural objects from grave robbers and pot hunters. It’s a worthy goal, but tribal activists increasingly have tried to broaden the interpretations of NAGPRA. The bottom line is that they want to make it virtually impossible for scientists to study prehistoric human remains, no matter how ancient or disconnected from actual tribes.

Their boldest attempts to cover up the past have involved Kennewick Man, a set of bones discovered in 1996 near Kennewick, Wash. The remains are more than 9,000 years old, and physical anthropologists find them intriguing because their morphology is said to differ significantly from that of North American Indians. Kennewick Man may be more closely related to the Ainu, an ethnic group indigenous to Japan, than to any modern Indian tribe. If true, it would mean that the story of human migration is much more complicated (and fascinating) than we have realized.

The only way to learn more, of course, is to let scientists take a close look at old bones. Several local tribes, however, invoked NAGPRA and demanded that Kennewick Man be turned over to them on the grounds that they were “affiliated,” as if any living person can claim a genuine “affiliation” with someone who died nine millennia ago. Their stated intention was not to examine Kennewick Man, but to rebury him. The federal government began to comply with their demands. Then a group of scientists sued. Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the scientists.

Blocked by the courts, the tribes are now seeking a far-reaching political fix. They’ve enlisted the help of McCain, who has just shepherded a bill through his Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It’s actually a big piece of Indian legislation–one of those monster bills that almost nobody bothers to read from front to end. Tucked away in a hidden corner, the NAGPRA revision involves just a pair of words. Yet they would change everything.

Here’s how the law currently reads:

“Native American” means of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States.

Here’s the proposed revision:

“Native American” means of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is or was indigenous to the United States.

Those two words–”or was”–would transform the meaning of NAGPRA. To paraphrase a famous former Washingtonian, they would alter what the meaning of “is” is.

“If this becomes law, then anything prehistoric that’s found on federal land would have to be given up,” says Alan Schneider, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who has litigated the Kennewick Man case.

By this new NAGPRA definition, even the bones of Adam and Eve would be classified as “Native American.”

McCain’s office recently told the Associated Press that the NAGPRA revision would not apply to Kennewick Man. Aides to senators Maria Cantwell of Washington and Gordon Smith of Oregon said the same thing.

“That’s just not true,” says Schneider. “If this becomes law, the case will reopen.”

Moreover, new discoveries of ancient remains–Kennewick Man’s kid sister, for instance, or an extinct human species such as Homo floresiensis–would be placed beyond the reach of science. In the name of a bogus multiculturalism, the story of our common human heritage would be revoked from us.

The Senate bill is scheduled for a voice vote any day. The odds of blocking it long enough to fix the NAGPRA section don’t look good, but that hasn’t stopped a handful of people who support the study of America’s ancient past. “We’ve been told that we didn’t have a prayer on Kennewick Man so many times, I’m not willing to give up on this,” says Cleone Hawkinson of Friends America’s Past, the leading group opposed to the bill.

If the Senate passes the legislation, some version of it will move to the House, where Kennewick Man and his friends will need a champion if they’re ever to have their stories told.

Is it too late to elect Frodo Baggins?

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


The Latest