The Ethics of Anzick

Landscape near Wilsall Montana, where Anzick-1 was buried 12,600 years ago.

Landscape of south-central Montana, where Anzick-1 was buried 12,600 years ago.

As Shane brought up yesterday, the sequencing of the genome of a toddler who died 12,600 years ago in Montana is big news not only for archaeologists, but also for Native communities. The results of the study of interest show genetic connections between Siberian, Clovis, and living indigenous North and South American peoples. This has major potential implications for assigning affiliations to ancient human remains, which has long been a cornerstone of NAGPRA. As far as I can tell based on the currently available coverage, the study also seems to demonstrate that archaeological research and respect for Native remains are not incompatible. Nature just posted a follow-up report on this topic — check it out and let us know what you think about it. I need to get back to dissertating/hitting my head against the wall, so for now, here are just a few quotes from the piece, in the order that they appear, that I thought were worth thinking about…

“Eske Willerslev, a palaeobiologist at the University of Copenhagen who led the latest study, attempted to involve Native American communities. And so he embarked on a tour of Montana’s Indian reservations last year, talking to community members to explain his work and seek their support. ‘I didn’t want a situation where the first time they heard about this study was when it’s published,’ he says.”

“[Several years before the present study], Sarah Anzick sought the advice of local tribes over the Clovis boy, but she could not reach a consensus with the tribes on what to do. She gave up on the idea, stored the bones in a safe location and got on with her other research.” [Side note: it’s not clear to me that consultation/consensus was re-sought for the present study. A subsequent passage [below] suggests maybe not… which seems problematic, even if it’s within the letter of the law re: remains found on private property.]

“Doyle and Willerslev then set off on a 1,500-kilometre road trip to meet representatives of four Montana tribes; Doyle later consulted another five. Many of the people they talked to had few problems with the research, Doyle says, but some would have preferred to have been consulted before the study started, and not years after.” 

“Willerslev says that researchers studying early American remains should assume that they are related to contemporary groups, and involve them as early as possible. But it is not always clear whom to contact, he adds, particularly when remains are related to groups spread across the Americas. ‘We have to engage with Native Americans, but how you deal with that question in practice is not an easy thing,’ he says.” [Side note 2: Really? I mean… it’s 2014… surely there is a name/email address/phone number to follow up with in these matters? I don’t mean to belittle the fact that consultation and collaboration can be a nebulous, circuitous undertaking, but still. Have other folks’ experiences highlighted any particular challenges or strategies in these matters?]

“Hank Greely, a legal scholar at Stanford University in California who is interested in the legal and ethical issues of human genetics, commends the approach of Willerslev’s team. But he says that there is no single solution to involving Native American communities in such research. ‘You’re looking to try to talk to the people who might be most invested in, or connected with, particular sets of remains,’ he advises.”

(All quoted material from “Ancient genome stirs ethics debate” by Ewan Calloway, Nature 506, 142–143 (13 February 2014) doi:10.1038/506142a. Photo from Lands of Montana.)


While searching for a photo to accompany this post, I cam across this interview with Shane Doyle (the Doyle referenced above), and think it adds additional dimensions to this discussion. Check it!

Tribal healing: Anzick child genome changed my life

4 comments on “The Ethics of Anzick

  1. […] of researchers have argued. Check out the SEAC Underground blog for more on the archaeology and ethics of the Anzick […]

  2. dover1952 says:

    Alice said: “Really? I mean… it’s 2014… surely there is a name/email address/phone number to follow up with in these matters? I don’t mean to belittle the fact that consultation and collaboration can be a nebulous, circuitous undertaking, but still. Have other folks’ experiences highlighted any particular challenges or strategies in these matters?]”

    One key challenge is the great divide between hard scientific evidence/plausibility and Native American tradition. Once upon a time, a local Native American activist and I got into a huge argument about this. As we know from the deepest halls of time and the results of archaeological, ethnographic, and historical studies all over the world, ancient and more recent peoples moved around quite a lot. People are very mobile over time. In addition, ethnic, social, and political groups fragmented and went their separate ways, new groups were formed from portions of older groups (e.g., Chickamauga here in the late historic-era southeast). With my Native American friend, I was arguing that such dynamic factors operating over vast stretches of time make the association of archaeological remains with all but the most recent Native American ethnic groups “highly tenuous.”

    Well, my friend and I went round and round and round and round with our arguments—me being highly caught up (and hung up) with the science, data, facts, and plausibility. Suddenly, my Native American friend, in a moment of truely fretful disgust, stopped me on a dime and said, “You archaeology and scientific people just don’t get it do you?” I was stunned.

    I said, “Get what?”

    He said, “It does not matter to our people what your science says, what your facts are, or what is scientifically plausible vs. implausible. All that matters to us is what our tribal tradition says, and we demand that you respect it regardless of what your science says.”

    What did he mean by that? Well, from assorted Native Americans, one often hears this sentence, and it is usually said with enormous personal conviction, “The people of our tribe have been on this land forever.” Let’s all say that together, “The people of our tribe have been on this land forever.” This is their tradition. This is what their great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and all the other elder members of the tribe have told them since they were born.

    In other words, if a Native American Creek is saying this, she means that if a time machine would take you back to that same geographic spot in Georgia (in 11,000 B.C.) , the Native American folks you would find there would be a direct Creek ancestor speaking her language. It does not matter to Native Americans if the Cherokee were noted as having a language in the Iroquoian language group. So, one can ask the questions, “What are these Iroquoian speakers doing in the Appalachian Highlands? Did someone move in ancient times—sounds like it?” Instead, if the currently passed down Native American oral tradition says that the Yuchi people “have been on this land forever,” then the Yuchi people expect archaeologists to respect and accept that simple “traditional fact” without questioning it scientifically or otherwise. All other cooperation must proceed from that point of agreement, regardless of what the science says. The most important thing is to respect the Native American tradition and bow down to it and its derivative implications if archaeologists want Native American respect and cooperation. The key question is, “Can archaeologists do that?”

    I think this sort of Native American thinking is a real challenge to archaeologists because science is the “white eyes” cultural way, and it runs straight into the adobe wall of some Native American traditions. There are probably many other such cultural disconnects that would present challenges in and of themselves.

    This was my own experience with my Native American friend in his particular case. Some of you might have seen other facets of this or other challenges.

    • Meg says:

      I think you make a really good point here. These two data sets– Native oral tradition and Western scientific tradition– are required by law to be compared, but are, in many ways, incomparable. Do other people out there have personal experience dealing with integrating (or not integrating) these two sets of data? Have you seen it work? How? In cases when the different lines of evidence don’t agree (no matter which they are), how do you decide how to weight them? When it doesn’t work, how do you deal with it?

  3. […] back to the WordPress site for our full length ramblings on the state of theory in the field, ethical implications of archaeological research, and everyone’s favorite rock […]

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