In the summer of 1996, two college students literally stumbled across a human skull while standing on a riverbank watching a hydroplane race. Thinking that they had discovered a murder victim, they notified the police, who called in a forensic anthropologist to investigate. The anthropologist, James Chatters, classified the bones as "Caucasoid," and theorized that they were the bones of an early settler. But then Chatters noticed the tip of a stone spearpoint embedded in the hip of the skeleton, later named "Kennewick Man." He sent a small sample of bone to be carbon-dated, and received a surprising result: the bones were over 9,000 years old. And that set off a frenzy of attention and controversy in the scientific community -- and elsewhere.
The Kennewick Man skeleton became the center of a heated battle between scientists and tribal leaders. Using a federal law known as NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) local Native American tribes sued for possession of the remains. Today, the remains are in the possession of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. Limited studies of the bones, including DNA testing, continue.
The Kennewick Man controversy is just one example of the conflicts between anthropologists and local cultures. In a new book, Skull Wars, anthropologist David Hurst Thomas looks at the history of anthropological and archaeological research, including many of the less-than-ethical things that have been done to native cultures in the name of science. Another book recently re-released, Give Me My Father's Body by Kenn Harper, tells the story of Minik, an Eskimo, who was brought to New York by polar explorer Robert Peary at the turn of the century. What rights do cultures have to resist scientific study -- and should scientists have the ability to study people who don't want to be studied? On this hour of Science Friday, we'll take a look at the history -- and ethics -- of anthropology