The battle lines are being drawn again by archaeologists and Native Americans over the re-interment of America’s oldest burial, a one and a half year-old boy who was laid to rest 13,000 years ago accompanied by the largest and most spectacular collection of Clovis burial artifacts ever discovered (also known as the Anzick Site). Tribal members in Montana and elsewhere want the child re-buried with reverence and ceremony while invested scientists want to keep on studying the human remains using DNA and Radiocarbon testing—techniques which destroy samples of what’s left of the child’s bones.
During the nasty legal squabble over Kennewick Man (a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in the Columbia River in 1996), we were reminded that archaeology lingers yet as a barely disguised insult to many Native Americans. The maneuvering and sequestering behind the discovery of Kennewick Man was a media circus fed by assertions of white supremacists that the Aryan race discovered America. Whatever the intent of the anthropologists, the result was increasing polarization between the scientists and the local Umatilla people.
The central issue of Kennewick Man was his ancestry: Was he of European origin? Some anthropologists thought he looked like a Caucasian actor from Star Trek. Why should Native Americans care about where he came from or from whom?
To explain the Native American position, one California professor wrote this condescending note, “…for the present system of incentives and rewards in which they operate depends on the constant assertion of Indian victimhood and white guilt. Such assertions would not be helped if it turned out the Indians weren’t the first Americans after all; that Europeans may have been here before them; or that Indians, like the Europeans who followed, may have come to America as colonizers to find a racially different aboriginal population, which they eventually replaced. For them it is better that as little as possible be known about Kennewick Man, or about any other ancient skeletal material for that matter.”
The Kennewick Man controversy, with white male scientists lined up on one side and Indians on the other, quickly grew ugly.
In Montana, however, the Clovis child’s ancestry is now clear: the boy’s people came from Siberia and his family is ancestral to 70 percent of all Native North and South Americans. He is America’s First Child. Clovis people no doubt came down from Alaska through the ice-free corridor between the two North American ice sheets and the origins of Clovis technology probable arise in Montana somewhere south of the Missouri River. All these claims can be verified by material found in the child’s burial.
A formal paper will soon be released in the scientific publication Nature. We know the genetic details from the recently released DNA results of the child’s skeletal remains. This is a very big archaeological deal, perhaps the biggest news so far in North American archaeology.
Thus the popular Solutrean theory, whereby Europeans from Spain and France paddled across the Atlantic Ocean to introduce Clovis technology to America, is dead. Clovis people were among the first wave of Americans who came over from Asia. The science so sacred to archaeologist has been completed; we have radiocarbon dates and DNA studies from the First Child’s skeletal remains and burial goods. It’s time for repatriation. Now, only the reburial of the bones remains.
Sadly, but predictably, the authors of this soon-to-be-published paper state are against reburial. Here is their statement as of November 1, 2013:
"The Anzick burial site was discovered on private land and the remains recovered have not been in control of a federally funded museum or federal agency, and thus the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) does not apply. Under Montana state law, unmarked human burials are not considered abandoned. Advice provided to the project by members of the Montana State Burial Board, however, confirmed that since no claimant has been made a request for the remains, the human remains from the Anzick burial site remain under the control of the landowners, the Anzick family."
In other words, the lead archaeologist considers the child’s skeletal remains the “private property” of the landowners, so he can go test the bones (DNA analysis is a particularly destructive process). The authors’ claims of informing Native American groups of their work are at least disingenuous.
An enrolled member of the Crow Tribe, an instructor at Montana State University in Bozeman, has recently presented the idea of reburial to Montana’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in Helena. Nothing was resolved as to how, when, or even if the First Child would be repatriated.
I would point out that Montana’s Native Americans have no more claim to the Anzick child skeletal remains and grave offerings than do other tribes throughout North and South America, from New York to Baja, from the Alaskan Coast to Florida and all through South and Central America. The First Child’s people are Grandfather and Grandmother to all.
Editor's note: Presented here with the author's express permission to the Magpie, this article was first published on Doug Peacock's blog under the heading, "Rants of a renegade naturist," on 28 November 2013.
Author's note: If you or your friends are Native Americans, the odds are that the Anzick child is your ancestor. Please call the Montana State Burial Preservation Board at (406) 444-2460 and ask to become a claimant to the child’s remains.
For more about the history of the Anzick site, please read In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene (AK Press, 2013).
Doug Peacock is an American naturalist, author, filmmaker, and Vietnam veteran. He is best known for his memoir, Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness.