DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory
Scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Texas A&M have analyzed the DNA of the remains of a young boy ceremonially buried some 12,600 years ago in Montana. Their new data sheds light on the ancestry of one of the earliest populations in the Americas, known as the Clovis culture, but also rekindles the debate over the ethics of handling ancient remains and the political consequences of scientific studies of Indian peoples. It also undercuts recent attempts by archaeologists to deny the antiquity of Indians and thus avoid the political and legal repercussions of disturbing ancient burial sites or mistreating ancient human remains.
The analysis, published last month in Nature, shows that today’s indigenous groups spanning North and South America are genetically related to the early peoples who roamed this continent, overturning previous, controversial findings by scientists and the courts. Over the past 15 years a subtle shift has occurred in the nomenclature of the oldest period in America’s prehistory. Whereas previously the inhabitants of this hemisphere in the period before 8,000 BC were known as Paleoindians (Ancient Indians), starting in 1999 a number of archaeologists began to insist on referring to them as Paleoamericans (Ancient Americans).
According to these archaeologists, recent scientific studies cast doubt on whether these ancient peoples were related to modern Indians. The change in terminology was needed to “avoid an inference of biological continuity between the current Native American populations and the earliest populations.”
There were concerns from some quarters that the change was due less to science and more to politics. It did not go unnoticed that the principle advocates for the term Paleoamerican were the archaeologists Robson Bonnichsen, the director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, and Richard Jantz, director of the Center for Forensic Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Both had also been lead plaintiffs in the famous suit brought by archeologists against the federal government, Bonnichsen, et al. v. United States, et al., otherwise known as “Kennewick Man.”
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