Adam Fish, MA
Significance: The battle for the Kennewick Man exposes the epistemological biases of science. While previous writers have articulated how science privileges and produces Western knowledge, no article deconstructs how archaeology builds its contextual knowledge from fieldwork and artifacts. This article explores how archaeological fieldwork produces a knowledge that is contingent upon a number of environmental and textual factors. Written by an archaeologist working for a Native American tribe on the Columbia Plateau, this article exposes how archaeological sciences were used in the Gould case and how the decision will harm Native Americans of the Columbia Plateau.
Biography: Adam Fish is an archaeologist for a Native American tribe on the Columbia Plateau and Executive Director of the Center for Landscape & Artefact (www.landarte.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to merging new media and applied anthropology.
Submitted to Wicazo Sa Review 28
A Critique of Archaeological Science on the Columbia Plateau
American archaeology on the Columbia Plateau is a science of the past. Its paradigms are cultural evolution and ecological determinism. Data from traditional knowledge, historical linguistics, deep context ethnographies, contemporary public consciousness, and the needs of living indigenous peoples are rarely included in reports made by Columbia Plateau archaeologists. While this information was held as unmeritorious, the data from archaeological science did persuade the 9th District Court, on February 4, 2004, to retain the Ancient One for scientific inspection. It is the position in this article that archaeological methods produce tenuous results that do not deserve the title of science. Archaeology is history. I will explain the jurisprudential and social ramifications of an archaeology that purports to be science by excluding subjective, indigenous, and public complements.
American archaeology on the Columbia Plateau is a science of the past. The data is material remains: arrowheads, rocks broken by hand, human and animal bones, faint storage and house pits, the rare pictograph. For over a century, the field methods of the science of the past has excavated and analyzed these traces. According to their calculations and hypothesis tests, the cultured past gradually evolved in reaction to climatic and ecological changes. In any positivists’ endeavor, much deemed subjective or “soft knowledge” is excluded. Such elements as oral traditions, historical linguistics, local knowledge, and reflexive and subjective experience are excluded. The most egregious exclusion is the contemporary public (which includes the tribes) to whom science swore to inform. Cognitive, social, embodied, and phenomenological information is not pursued by the scientists, only information that can correlate behavior to ecology, represent the past as rational to Anglo-American sensibilities, and render the chaos of the past manageable for federal land agencies. The best of the science’s knowledge of the shape of projectile points, the presence of pithouses, and shape of Indian bones were legally and strategically deployed resulting in the Ancient One remaining at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.
A lack of creativity bordering on autistic redundancy, ignorance of twenty years of qualitative archaeological theory and practice, a lack of responsibility to inform the public, and a disengagement with the politics of archaeological praxis are but a few valid critiques of late 20th century Columbia Plateau archaeologists. The omission most infamous is the avoidance of presently-living Native Americans and a callous appropriation and possession of their material cultural history. On the Columbia Plateau, archaeologists have produced little in the way of socially relevant or publicly interesting knowledge. The results of the first sixty years of modern research produced not one popular text or archaeological synthesis that was useful to more than 100 people, including graduate students. During this period, living Columbia Plateau peoples continued to live on isolated reservations with second-rate health care, education, housing, and infrastructure. In this article, I describe how archaeologists’ field and representation practices perpetuate a false sense of scientific accuracy resulting in profound consequences for Native Americans.
That archaeological evidence can be trusted to supply fact is in question. Most archaeologists will, without mincing their words, confess that the data pool with which we randomly sample is exceptionally limited and subject to internal chaos of unpredictable origin. Out of the field, like all cultural productions, our work is subject to the limitations of representation, text, and audience. These factors, and many others, place burdensome constraints on what we can possibly approximate from the past. Columbia Plateau archaeologists neither question the legitimacy or rationality of their conclusions. To the ignorance of Columbia Plateau archaeologists, the notion that science produces ultimate facts has received many debilitating appraisals (Kuhn 1970; Rorty 1980). Two decades of postmodernism has gnawed at the foundation of absolutes, universals, facticity, and predictability to reveal the political, historical, and social contexts of “truth and law.” I will describe how the various elements of the archaeological project make objectivity and hypothesis verification impossible. In describing the contingencies and situations of archeological fieldwork and its social products, I will exhibit the potencies and potentials of historical writing guided by material culture and landscape fieldwork. The conclusions of scientific archaeologists are tenuous for five primary reasons.
One problem exists in the irreversible affects of soil and time on material culture. Material culture deteriorates at an unpredictable rate. A second problem is the subjective foundation of any phenomenological experience, including scientific experimentation. A third problem is that all scientific practices are situated within particular histories and are influenced by contemporary political contexts. These processes ameliorate “objectivity.” The forth and fifth problems relate to the interpretive and reflexive nature of communication (language) and documentation (text). I hope this critique results in an impression that archaeology is more a powerful historical tool than an objective science. Archaeology is a method of research and writing history that could improve its social services. Archaeology could learn something from indigenous phenomenologies of the past and thereby avoid costly court case such as Bonnichsen v. US, a product of what Clayton W. Dumont states as the “colonialist refusal to reflexively interrogate the political qualities of scientific claims on Indian dead” (2003, 109).
century, archaeologists throughout the world have followed a handful of
different approaches to old things. In the 1950s, we described and built
chronologies. ‘Processual’ archaeologists in the 1960s, influenced by
neo-Darwinism, oriented archaeology sites in relationships to the environment.
Behavioralists of the same period sought to reassemble the remains of ancient
activities. ‘Post-processualists’, influenced by postmodernism in the 1980s and
today, equate science with capitalism, gender inequality, and other power
structures. Related, post-structural archaeologists, influenced by literary
theory, think that material culture can be ‘read.’ Each type of archaeologist
concurs that material culture requires some intervention by living people. In
each archaeological approach, there is decay and a salvation. We conclude that
the accumulation of these artifacts, discovered in similar situations in
proximal localities, with analogous assemblages and dates, creates a corollary
and a homology.
The archaeologist arrives too late to abort decay. What remains are almost always stone artifacts that are subjected to thousands of years of bioturbation, redeposition, erosion, wear, and tear. The unpredictable nature of sediments, erosion, animal burrows, and chemical transformations leave ancient material culture in a state unlike the way it was used in the host culture. The humans skeleton is highly pliable both during life and after death. The archaeologist is always left with fragments, crude metonyms, signifiers in a broken chain of meaning. No biographies, archives, or texts exist to support the uses of these objects. Archaeologists must find human remains and other remnants from the past in context, in situ; we must personally be there to unleash the bones (and their meaning) from the soil. From a scientific perspective, an artifact without a context, regardless of the importance of the find, is meaningless. The Ancient One was not uncovered by archaeologists, but by intoxicated speed boat fans. The conclusions about the Ancient One’s ancestry were drawn from osteological tests, the last and least informative of archaeology strategies. To further limit the available data from which to base a hypothesis, archaeologists, in the hopes of being true scientists, neglect an important stream of data, personal experience.
The scientist is a human being with passions and a past. In all acts of science, from hypothesis forming and field testing to text-making, this person is involved with mind, body, and soul. This is exceptionally true in a field science such as archaeology. We get our data out in nature where there are numerous ecological and personal elements which influence our perception, reception, and documentation of the scattered traces of the past. We use our senses, which react in incomparable ways to similar situations. In the 19th century, archaeologists recorded their finding in journals and diaries that told of the experience in the field, the mosquitoes and river crossings, as well as the recovered materials. In the mid 20th century, archaeologists opined that that practice polluted the science with subjective bias. Attempting to exclude themselves, archaeologists limited themselves to describing discoveries and not the process of discovery, to description and not interpretation. This is a disembodied praxis.
Imagine. You are looking at a vertical wall of dirt several meters high, a few “lenses” of uniquely textured soil and a few patterns of stones are evidence for a storage pit and a fire hearth. Moving from the bottom of the wall to the top you are told that the artifacts, which are usually projectile points, “evolve” from being thrusting spears, to becoming atlatl darts, to finally becoming arrowheads, each designed to hunt different animals alive in different climates. Each point is present in the vertical wall of soil. Between each point style are 1 to 2 meters of dirt, a few stones that fell off of the cave roof, a hundred footprints, and ten-thousand rains. From this frieze the archaeologist writes culture history. This act of exphrasis magnifies the oddity of archaeological science.
The experience I just wrote you through was had by two or three archaeologists in the last 50 years of digging-up the Columbia Plateau. Only in a few sites was this linear vertical typology evident. Only in the field are cultural histories observable. Once rendered to graphic representations and expert recuperation, those temporal sequences and typological evolutions are lost. The graphs, models, and analogies made by archaeologists were embraced by the court --not as cinema verite-- but as the Real.
Field archaeology, however scientific its aspirations, does not subsist in a political vacuum or sanitary laboratory. Field archaeologists can not reproduce their findings in laboratories because they destroy their data through excavation. Any subsequent hypothesis testing is conducted in a different location with vastly different taphonic and experiential constraints (e.g. different crew members, weather, budgets, moods, time constraints, excavation methods, etc.), this produces at best analogies but no repeatable facts are ever observed.
The conviction that scientific method is the most appropriate and sophisticated vehicle for the recovery of meaning from the past, that science is bias-free, and that the results of scientific inquiry are universally valuable across the planet has been fiercely debated and contested. As was stated above, archaeologists are forced to deduce their hypotheses from the most obscure and subtle traces of past human behavior. In addition, there are so many variables which to calculate in forming meaningful approximations of past behavior that what is concluded is often far from meaningful, a scientific model made on paper, and of limited use to archaeologists themselves, let alone the contemporary public. The results often conflict with sincere traditional beliefs. Divorced from competing with other methods of epistemologies in the public arena, archaeology at best becomes an academic sport, autonomous from the critiques of social consciousness.
Archaeological science uses its data capriciously to affirm preexisting theories of cultural evolution. These theories are dependent upon slow, continuous, almost static evolution. Within archaeological models there is no room to situate or explain anomalous discoveries. By all opinions the Ancient One is an anomaly. When Plateau archaeologists, professionally, politically, and personally invested in their models of gradual evolution, are asked to judge where an anomaly like the Ancient One fits into their evolutionary chronology they state the Ancient One is outside of their chronologies, and therefore is not affiliated with anything with which we know. Evolutionary chronologies are not made to affirm cultural affiliation, they are broad, general schemes used to situated typical discoveries in an organizational model useful for answering managerial problems. The chronologies used on the Columbia Plateau have existed with little mutation for 50 years.
Judge Gould cites “Dr. Ames’ conclusions about the impossibility of establishing cultural continuity” (Gould 2004, 1606) as evidence of their being no “cultural relationship” (Gould 2004, 1603). The Gould court puts an impossible burden on archaeological science. In the situations where the expectations of science are beyond what science can prove, deference should be given to those who presently most identify with the remaining human. Cultural affiliation can be judged by a court presiding over civil law. The court concluded that NAGPRA does not give Native Americans the right to control remains without proving a “special and significant genetic or cultural relationship” (Gould 2004, 1603). Archaeological science is incapable of accurately defining what Native Americans are and what they are not. Science does not have the skill of deciphering identity, and, contrary to the court’s opinion, the tribes do have a “cultural relationship” with the Ancient One. The testimonies, years of struggle, and millions of dollars spent by a poor people to litigate for his return are a paramount example of kinship with the Ancient One. Gould (2004) and Jelderks (2002) interpret the gaps in the archaeological record as evidence of a lack of cultural affiliation and yet most Plateau archaeologists know that the gaps in the record are a result of a selective and skewed sampling, a limited and inflexible chronological model, and the inconclusive fragments with which we work.
I suggest that a measurement outside of science be used to judge cultural relationship. The culture that most identifies with the remains is the descendent. The material remains of the past should be given to those whose experiences of themselves and community will be positively affected by being in contact with the material remains. Those whose independence hinges upon the preservation or control of the remains should be primary shareholders of those remains.
The court concluded that the Ancient One is not related to anyone who “is indigenous” today. The name “Native American,” as used in NAGPRA, is not a social category capable of withstand either phonemic, memic, or genetic analysis. Native Americans know who they are, their identity and social authority is shored up in place names and language, is resistant and adaptive. Biologists make careers by naming new floral species, archaeologists further their professions by recognizing and naming new temporal phases, and colonists resettled the West and did so while renaming places already named by Native Americans. In Bonnichsen v. US, the scientists used the ambiguity and powers in neologisms to restructure the politics around being Native American. Now, Native Americans are only Native Americans with scientific approval. This taxonomy of people returns anthropology to the days when tribal people were seen as a deviation of nature, destined for extinction (or genocide) and who were exhibited in Natural History museums alongside stuffed wildebeests and geological dioramas.
The beginning of a Columbia Plateau scientific archaeological text consist of a basic contextual and narrative history of the project area, recycled from previous reports untold times. Often the cited reports are over 40 years old. The writers of these texts are praised by their supervisors if the report is ‘technical.’ With this ‘readerly’ part about the ‘culture’ complete, the remainder of the report consists of graphs and lists, and photographs and tables. So much of this writing exists in the seduction of mathematics; filler to justify paid hours. Working against the aims of technical writing, both text and table serve as metaphoric models, a woeful poetics of the past and an uneventful archaeological experience. But unlike metaphors, which exploit anomalies and employ ironies within analogy and metonymy, the technical model strives towards a never-neverland of objectivity and distanciation.
The ascension of indigenous archaeologies, which place importance upon the concerns of living indigenous people (Watkins 2000), and the popularity of qualitative anthropology in the academic and publishing worlds, signal declines in the preconception that quantitative archaeological science produces absolute and universal knowledge.
For five decades, archaeological projects on the Columbia Plateau have been conducted with little input from tribes and little output to society. Historic, tribal, and archaeological preservation is a concern of both Anglo and Native Americans. The public has recognized that the power of the control of cultural resources is great and requires a savvy balance of the concerns of numerous shareholders. History is a construction, fabricated from residual material and immaterial traces, with a legacy of less than objective deployments, and is situated in a contemporary political environment. With the pliability of history at play and the potency of history at stake, the public opined that one archaeological property type, Native American burials, were excluded from the exploitative dialectic of cultural resource commodification. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was written to ensure that human remains and sacred objects were not used in the free-play of scientific/political meaning-making.
Science claims to produce valueless and objective truths, which it models with texts. The court’s decision proves that science is not without judgment and is put to use to support certain socially sanctioned practices, such as the dissection of human remains. Those favoring the reinternment of the Ancient One threaten the foundation of the codependent relationship held between law and science. For this reason, indigenous belief systems, threatening the established order, need to be hunted. In law and order, as ever, there is a Indian scalp bounty. The Ancient One is but another body in a chain of uncontrollable and dangerous signs scheduled for classification, imposition, appropriation and eventual impotency.
Tribal sovereignty poses one of the only socially valid and publicly sanctioned resistances to the American capital-corporate empire. The host of Native American religious rights protection acts exhibit that policy makers, whether they are aware of it or not, are encouraging a form of diversity that threatens the status quo. One of the foundational stories of our nation’s development is the respect and space afforded to the individual. We have recognized the contributions made by foreign born and culturally diverse citizens. NAGPRA, like the First Amendment of the US Constitution, was written to ensure that the other was embraced into the nation’s social heritage. The court should recognize NAGPRA as a civil law, falsified in the critical glare of science, but immediately necessary for religious and cultural diversity.
The Ancient One has become an object in a power-play in which history is used to inscribe contemporary politics into the past to affirm the universal value of the present late-capitalistic way-of-being and its future ascension. It could be argued that archaeology and anthropology are explicitly linked to a process of incorporating the other into a frame of reference accessible to national audiences and desire. A social history of the century of archaeological research in the Columbia Plateau exposes the politically situated knowledge produced by social scientists in pursuit of rational, predictive, and pragmatic models of social behavior (Fish 2004).
It was not until the late 1980s that archaeologists reflected on their post-colonial legacy (Shanks and Tilley 1987). These theories have had no effect on United States federal land management, a minimal effect on United States academies, and little to no effect on archaeologists of the Columbia Plateau. With the ascension of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, the World Archaeology Congress, international indigenous rights law, and the recognition of the politics of heritage management coming out of the transitional third-world countries and indigenous rights movements (Patterson and Schmidt 2001), it is now apparent to self-aware archaeologists throughout the world that our projects have the potential to not only affect tourist economy and social memory but the foundational validity and stability of nation-states. NAGPRA forces archaeologists to confront this past and process, and NAGPRAs potency was weakened as a result of Bonnichsen v US. Some Plateau archaeologists fought having to reflect upon their actions and become informed by contemporary post-colonial theory…and won.
Some of the tribes and appellants are not against scientific investigation (the appealing Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation for example). What the tribes require is a compromise with science. The court was unwilling to recognize that a compromise could have been reached by returning the Ancient One to the tribes after preliminary research had been conducted. To allow for this compromise would have strengthened the belief that there can be mutually autonomous, though complementary, historiographies. But this compromise would have weakened the monolithic belief that science is the only epistemology situated in Reality and applicable in America. The monolith of science, claiming to be backed by democratic principles, high-technological innovations, and Protestant pragmatism stands as the foremost opponent to the peaceful collaboration of diverse and marginal epistemologies.
The 9th District court affirmed that the scientific method is the best epistemology with which to discern affiliation and recover meaning from the Ancient One. This comes to no surprise to the tribes who have participated in numerous court cases seeking protection of sacred sites and religious rights. When the courts weighed the structural components of the Western worldview (granted, it is a huge hegemony containing as it does nationalism, democracy, capitalism, essentialism, rule of law, monotheism, positivism, rationality, and the military industrial complex) versus religion rights, the tribes have been defeated in every instance. The Ancient One is now the property of scientists, who, by claiming the authority and right to make universal meaning from the phenomenological world, will construct a history from the Ancient One that will implicitly support the structure of the Western worldview.
Proponents of universal applications of scientific epistemologies claim that the Ancient One is the cultural property/progeny of all humans. While this is potentially a fine ideal, contemporary local concerns surrounding the survival, sovereignty, and health of small-scale cultures is presently more essential than the creation of a world bank of osteological information for comparison, query, and graduate student research. The Ancient Ones return would have affirmed tribal autonomy, the power of pan-tribal confederations, and further legitimize the powers of tribal self-governance in cultural resources management, in the eyes of the public, to funding federal agencies, and to governing tribal councils. The “recovery” of the Ancient One back from science would have been a symbol of indigenous perseverance, strengthening Native American culture, and the continuation of tribal religious traditions. The return of the Ancient One would have validated traditional ways of being to young Native people. Oral traditions are made evermore tenuous as legal documents, especially when contrasted to the approximations, models, and theories of science. This will further marginalize the teachings of elders and the transmission of traditional wisdom through song, dance, and story. The oral traditions submitted by the Columbia Plateau tribes are profound evidences of cultural continuity dating before the time of the Ancient One. The oral traditions help elders to remember when the earth was in a period of transformation, a time when geological events occurred over 14,000 years ago. These traditions are alive today and will continue to be vibrant inspirations for tribal peoples forever. These stories are the vehicles and containers for culture, far more metonymic of culture, a lingua-cognitive phenomena, than the bald evidence presented by the archaeologists. NAGPRA was not written as a boxing rink for the bout between science and indigenous tradition, nor was it written to test the definition of what it is to be a Native American
Seen as an object not yet coded with a dominant paradigmatic sign, the Ancient One is that threatening or fueling substance. He exists in that virgin frontier of anomalies waiting to be transformed into meaning by archaeologists. He is one of the multitudes that threaten with resistance or constitute a passive fuel for progress. After the scientists fully exhaust all scientific studies and embrace the Ancient One with their incorporating technologies the dominant paradigm will unfold within the Ancient One. Eventually, the Ancient One will be no more, replaced by a simulacra in archaeology texts, a post-card, a graph, a billboard, an anecdote, a replicant, a cyborg.
The structure of the Western worldview once proliferated by sword, Bible, and plough is now perpetuated by a self-replicating informational virus spread by the global culture industry in the form of advertising and American brand democracy. It seemed a sad joke when Jim Chatters reconstructed the Ancient One in such a manner as to look like a famous British actor, as if he had become a spokesman for a line of sneakers or discount airlines, or maybe a superhero of amazing scientific power: K-MAN. It is now true, the Ancient One is another metonym fragmented from a congested web of meaning to become a “supermodel” for a Western-styled paradigm.
“The Kennewick Man:” the Results of 60 years Archaeological Sciences on the Columbia Plateau
This conclusion of the case evinces the results of 60 years of archaeological research divorced from Native American complements. The case eventually boiled down to a judge with no archaeological training opining from arguments about such esoteric elements as radio carbon dates, the absence of pithouses, the shape of projectile points, and the presence of a chemical in the bones to refer to anadromous fish consumption. Once the scientists had steered the legal dialogue away from the language of ethics and to the language of the archaeologist it was clear the archaeologists were going to win the court case. The elements that constitute culture: language, oral traditions, living narrative, memory identities, participant epistemologies, kinship, religion, and social agents supported the tribes’ claims for repatriation. Archaeological evidence -eternally inconclusive- is the reason why the Ancient One is destined to decay on a plastic shelf instead of in the Mother Earth.
I have written this to encourage Tribal Historic Preservation Officers to assert their federal rights. The majority of the texts in the 1970s and 1980s, from which the data in Bonnichsen v. US were drawn were CRM experiments conducted on public land and funded by US federal dollars. THPOs have the legal right to critically review all such reports for wrongful data inclusions, omissions, and interpretations. Today, tribes have a say in the conclusions made in archaeology texts whose writers are funded by federal dollars. The archaeologist of the past wrote scientific reports that did not account for the politics of the past. In the future, tribes need to attend to the uses of the past inside the present. Native American tribes need to know what interpretations support the histories within which the tribes want to live.
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