Which is more true: The historical data you can measure, weigh, and record? Or the evidence that comes from a heartfelt history passed along since before recorded time? And what happens if the fundamental values behind one version of truth conflict with those of the other?
A legal case involving a skeleton more than 9,000 years old pits scientific inquiry against the rights of native Americans.
Indians say the remains of "Kennewick Man" - named for the Washington State town where he was found along the banks of the Columbia River in 1996 - belong to an ancient ancestor whom they have a right to honor and bury without scientists poking and prodding him. The US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Interior Department agreed, and ordered the remains of what native Americans call "the Ancient One" turned over to the tribes.
But eight top archaeologists and anthropologists (two of them with the Smithsonian Institution) have sued, contending there is evidence that the remains are of a man not related to native Americans and that it is very important the skeleton be studied to learn more about how North America was populated millenniums ago.
The case is being argued before a federal magistrate in Portland, Ore., this week, and according to partisans on both sides, the stakes couldn't be higher.
"What is at issue in this case is not just our desire to protect one ancestor, but how this case will be applied to every other native-American skeleton found in the United States," says Armand Minthorn, a member of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore.
How scientists see it
The Society for American Archaeology, on the other hand, warns that if the scientists lose their case, there could be "devastating implications for accommodating scientific and diverse public interests."
Given the long history of grave-robbing in North America to supply private collections, museum exhibits, and university laboratories, the issue is highly sensitive to both sides.
In response to Indian concerns, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. It provides that remains and funerary objects be returned to those shown to be lineal descendants or having a close cultural affiliation. This is the law on which the Army Corps and Interior Department ruled in favor of a coalition of five Pacific Northwest tribes.
When he made his ruling last September, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt relied primarily on the location of Kennewick Man near traditional tribal areas and on the oral histories of the tribes.
"Clearly, when dealing with human remains of this antiquity, concrete evidence is often scanty, and the analysis of the data can yield ambiguous, inconclusive or even contradictory results," Mr. Babbitt acknowledged. But he concluded that "any ambiguities ... must be resolved liberally in favor of Indian interests."
That liberal interpretation is what scientists object to. "This determination of cultural affiliation relies almost exclusively on the geographical context of the find and oral traditions," states the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. "On the other hand, the physical anthropological and archaeological studies show important biological and cultural differences and very substantial cultural discontinuities between the Kennewick individual and the modern tribal groups who claim his remains."
Based on initial examination, scientists reported that Kennewick Man shared physical affinities with populations in Polynesia as well as with the Ainu people, a Caucasoid group in Japan. Based on the skull's shape, James Chatters, the first anthropologist to examine the remains, initially thought they belonged to a 19th-century pioneer of European stock.
Until fairly recently, most anthropologists believed that all native Americans descended from those who had crossed the Bering Sea via a land bridge from Asia more than 10,000 years ago. But newer studies have indicated that Pacific islanders and Europeans could well have come to North America by boat thousands of years ago, as well.
For their part, Indians do not accept that their ancestors came from anywhere else. "From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time," says Mr. Minthorn. "We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent."
'We believe that humans change'
"We also do not agree with the notion that this individual is Caucasian," he says. "Scientists say that because the individual's head measurement does not match ours, he is not native American. We believe that humans and animals change over time to adapt to their environment."
"We are not trying to be troublemakers," says Minthorn. "We are doing what our elders have taught us - to respect people, while they're with us and after they've become part of the earth."
Scientists don't object to that general philosophy. But they insist that studying Kennewick Man - with respect and sensitivity - can only add to human knowledge.
"The resolution of this case will affect scientists' freedom to study other skeletons, other sites, other traces of the past," states Friends of America's Past, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit organization that promotes the rights of scientists. "If these scientists [in the lawsuit] are successful, there will be a future for archaeology and physical anthropology in this country. If not, the future could be bleak for a scientific understanding of the past."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor