In 1996, two college students stumbled upon some skeletal remains in the Columbia River in Washington. The body, it turns out, was the oldest ever found in North America. In order to understand the story and controversy of the Kennewick Man, also known as The Ancient One, we need to go way back to the ethnographers, anthropologists, and archaeologists of the 19th century. These men sought to unlock the mysteries of race by collecting skulls and bones they could measure and examine, and ultimately, they constructed a theory of race that confirmed their own racist world views, one which we still use today.

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Transcript for Skull Collectors: Race, Pseudoscience, and Native American Bodies

Written and research by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Sarah: In 1996, two college students went for a walk in the shallow waters of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington State. As they waded through the water, they came across something neither expected: a human skull. They called the police. When the coroner arrived and they began to investigate the scene, they discovered not only a skull, but a nearly intact human skeleton buried in the sandy mud of the Columbia River.

Averill: But while they were expecting the scene of a murder or body dump, what they actually discovered was something far different – although it, too, would wind up in the courts. The skeletal remains totally defied the coroner’s expectations, and he called in a local archaeologist to help him understand what he was seeing. The skull was clearly very old, but didn’t have characteristics that seemed to match the skulls of Native Americans, but also didn’t have tooth decay from sugar, which might have indicated a European person.

Sarah: Eventually, local archaeologist James Chatters discovered a tiny sliver of something embedded in the hipbone of the skeleton. It was the very tip of a stone spearhead. Now it seemed clear that this person must have lived a very, very long time ago – and in deed, when the bones were carbon dated, they proved to be 9000 years old. Turn out, instead of a modern murdered corpse, those college students had discovered the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas. Clearly, this ancient body had things it could teach scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians – ranging from the fairly basic questions such as where did he live? what did he eat? but also really, really major questions like how did human beings first end up in North America? But while the Kennewick Man represented scientific discovery to some, he represented an ancient ancestor to others. Native Americans from the Kennewick region claimed the skeleton as the remains of a beloved and revered forefather, and demanded that the bones be returned to the earth. The resulting legal battle, which continued for some twenty years, pit science against culture in a way that linked into a very long and contentious history of colonialism, racism, and violence. Today, we’re talking about the Kennewick Man, but we’re also talking about the longer history of the scientific collection of Native American bones for scientific research, and the efforts to return those bodies to their own communities for reburial.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Averill: If you think back to an episode that Elizabeth wrote a few months ago, about the development of natural history museums, you’ll recall that during the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a growing desire to collect bits of the natural world in what collectors often called “cabinets” of curiosities. These museums often included interesting, unusual, or rare items that scientists used to better understand the world around them. But what Elizabeth did not talk about quite as much during that episode was the simultaneous growth of similar museums that collected interesting, unusual, or rare bits of human bodies, or what came to be known as anatomy museums.

Sarah: Now, I want to be clear about something from the start. Anatomy museums and natural history museums sometimes overlapped – as in, some natural history museums sometimes collected bits of human anatomy – but not always. And I think it’s important to draw this distinction fairly early. In most institutions that fashioned themselves as natural history museums, if they collected human remains, it was almost always from the bodies of people of color. And overwhelmingly, those people were Native Americans or other indigenous groups – these were people who were already assumed to be akin to animals, just a part of nature rather than part of ‘civilization.’ Anatomy museums also might hold the body parts or skeletal remains of Native people or other marginalized groups, but they were often collected not because of their value as part of the natural world, but more for their value to medical science. For instance, I have a chapter in my forthcoming book about one particular anatomy museum called the Army Medical Museum. This was created during the Civil War to be a repository, first, for the bodies and body parts of wounded and dead soldiers, with the idea that future doctors could learn from the horrific wounds that the war was creating. And the AMM does go on to also hold the body parts of Native Americans and other people, but, say, the Smithsonian Natural History museum did not come to hold soldiers’ bodies. There’s no real hard and fast line between the two, of course, but this is a general difference. And we should also say that while the issue of collecting soldiers’ body parts is also COMPLETELY BONKERS, we’re not going to talk about it here today – for that, you’re going to have to read my book! But who knows, maybe someday we’ll come back to it in an episode.

Averill: While the collection of skeletal and bodily remains has a longer history in Europe, we’re mainly going to be focusing on the United States in this episode. (Insert some joke about how I’m a terrible Americanist here.) This means we should probably start by talking about the man who was sort of the godfather of bone collecting in the US, Samuel George Morton. Morton was born in Philadelphia in 1799, and trained as a physician at the University of Edinburgh, one of the most prestigious medical schools in Europe. After he graduated, he returned to Philadelphia, where he became the Pennsylvania Medical College’s anatomy professor. For his job as an anatomy professor, Morton had a constant need for bodies and body parts. Quite a while back, we did an episode on Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, in which Sarah talked quite a bit about the anatomy, dissection, and autopsy during the 19th c. – so we’ll refer you there for more details, but in a nutshell, it was really, really hard to get bodies to use for medical education or research. So Morton’s collecting began as a way to have a supply of examples for his students to learn from. But as time went on, he shifted from wanting classroom learning tools to wanting to collect a wide variety of different kinds of skulls. By the time he died, he had somewhere around 1000 human skulls in his collection.

A painting portrait of Samuel George Morton

Portrait of Samuel George Morton, American Philosophical Society, ca. 1850 | Public Domain / WIkimedia Commons

Sarah: After teaching for some time, he stepped down from his teaching post to concentrate full time on what he was really interested in, which was researching and writing about the human body. Morton identified as an ethnologist, a branch of science and medicine that concerned comparing human beings to one another. As Morton described it, ethnology “compared the different races of man” against one another to learn more about how human beings should be categorized. This desire to categorize and organize came to Morton naturally – he was raised at the tail end of the Enlightenment, and from the time he was a small boy, he obsessively read the work of Philadelphia physician and general hound dog, Benjamin Rush (who has weirdly made appearances in A LOT of our episodes recently). The scientists, doctors, and thinkers of the Enlightenment wanted to unlock the mysteries of the world, not through prayer or religious study, but through the power of science. Many Enlightenment thinkers were also super into careful record keeping and obsessive measurements, in the hopes that this data would help them better understand the natural world. For instance, Thomas Jefferson was super into the science of phenology, which involved keeping extremely precise records of when the first leaves of spring emerged, or when the first raspberries ripened, or when the first snowfall was. This seems super tedious, but I’m actually really into this, and this still exists – you can go to and become an amateur phenologist right now if you so choose! But actually wait until after the episode.

Averill: Actually, Thomas Jefferson’s pastimes dabbling in science brings us to another reason why Morton became involved in ethnology. In 1785, Jefferson published his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia. He wrote the book sort of accidentally, when he published a bunch of short notes and essays he prepared to answer the questions of Francois Barbe-Marbois, the secretary of the French legation in America during the American Revolution. Barbe-Marbois had assembled something like 20 questions about Virginia – things like “Describe the boundaries of Virginia” “Describe the colleges and public establishments.” It’s like a crazy comprehensive exam in Virginia culture or something. Anyway, part of Jefferson’s motivations in his answers to Barbe-Marbois’s questions was to rebut the theories of French naturalist, George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who argued that the Americas could not boast of having any huge mammals, and that the indigenous people were also all small – his point being that the Americas were unhealthy and inferior, and that Europeans who moved there would degrade. Jefferson set out to argue against Buffon by arguing that, actually, America had lots of big things, like moose! He even argues about the relative sizes of various animals. He even throws in mammoths, which were quite huge, with this hilarious shade: “The bones of the mammoth, which have been found in America, are as large as those found in the old world. It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth as if it still existed? I ask in return, why should I omit it as if it did not exist?”

Sarah: Notes on the State of Virginia is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Jefferson’s overtly racist discussion of the bodies of enslaved blacks, which is rich considering the long term relationship he had with his own enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, and the several mixed-race children he had, but that’s a really complicated story for another day. What’s important for us here are two things. First, Jefferson’s preoccupation with size helped to cement the idea that bigger is better – in this case, that size is an indication of intelligence and civilization. Morton applied this general idea to his examination of human skulls. One of the things Jefferson noted in his Notes, for instance, is that while scientists could speculate that, say, blacks were inferior to whites in “faculties of reason and imagination,” this was actually really hard to quantify, and that it would take a lot of careful scientific study to actually prove. During the 19th century, Morton and other naturalists would try to use various scientific disciplines to try to determine which races were the most advanced, and which were the most inferior. The science that Morton embraces, and which purports to be the solution to Jefferson’s dilemma, was craniometry, a science that involved the careful measurement and observation of human skulls. We’ll come back to craniometry in just a second.

Averill: But first I want to explain the second reason Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia are important. In Notes, Jefferson also spends some time contemplating the issue of mounds. For a long time, European Americans had argued that the earthen mounds that existed across the US were the product of a vanished white race – basically, they believed that these white people had been there and built them because obvious Native Americans were incapable. Jefferson thought that was ridiculous, and instead postulated that they were actually burial mounds. Ever the scientist, Jefferson was not happy just to write about his theory, and took the logical next step of having the mounds excavated. I intentionally use the passive voice there because, as a wealthy planter and politician, you know Jefferson was not out there shovel in hand – he instead supervised as his enslaved men dig up the mounds. Lo and behold, the mound was full of the skeletal remains. Jefferson actually acted more or less exactly like an archaeologist, investigating the condition of the bones and artifacts to conclude that the mounds were used for the burial of common people. (In other words, they weren’t like the pyramids, set aside for the wealthy and powerful, or monuments to the dead soldiers of some war.) In Notes, not only does he describe his own scientific research, but also goes on to defend Native Americans from de Buffon, who claimed they were essentially stupid, lazy, and impotent, and Jefferson calls all that nonsense. But at the same time, Jefferson created a kind of natural history museum in the entrance to Monticello, displaying the bones of those mastodons alongside gathered and unearthed indigenous artifacts. In this way, Jefferson cemented the idea that Native Americans were part of the natural landscape of the new United States, and belonged to the country in the same way that deer or bear or turtles did. This is really complicated, so I want to sum this up with two great sentences from archaeologist David Hurst Thomas: “This is why archaeology textbooks, including my own, canonize Thomas Jefferson as America’s first scientific archaeologist. It is also why many modern Indians see him as America’s first scientific grave robber.”

Sarah: Let’s go back to Morton and craniometry. Today, craniometry is considered a pseudoscience as well as a form of scientific racism. We’ll put some images up in the show notes that will illustrate this, but craniometry included all sorts of different kinds of measurements of skulls and heads, including things like the volume capacity of the skull – which would indicate brain size – and the angle of the face. All of these measurements were believed to indicate something about the inferiority or superiority of not just that individual person, but all people belonging to that race. Morton believed that races were not just natural variation within humankind, but that humans were actually made up of many different species, and like the Comte de Buffon and Thomas Jefferson believed, their physical features revealed the superiority or inferiority of each species. Morton’s craniometry focused on measuring cranial capacity, in the belief that this indicated brain size, which he believed correlated directly to intellectual capacity. And by this, Morton didn’t just mean intelligence, but also other traits associated with the mind – rationality, ingenuity, inventiveness, creativity, and imagination, for instance. Morton and his colleagues also understood all living creatures had a natural hierarchy, with human beings on top. So by collecting skulls, Morton and his colleagues believed that they could better understand each different species of humankind, and ultimately be able to understand their hierarchy. 

Averill: During the 1820s, Morton joined a group of likeminded scientists and doctors called the Academy of Natural Sciences. This group met regularly, but had no cash, so they usually met at one of their houses, or at an ice-cream shop. (Which makes me laugh A LOT) At one point, however, a wealthy amateur geologist named William McClure funded the group, allowing them to establish a library and start a natural history collection. In 1825, McClure up and left Philadelphia to join a utopian society in Indiana, leaving Morton in charge of running the academy. It was as the director of the society that Morton’s collecting really got underway. Now, he had contacts he could call on to send him things. Unlike other collectors, Morton did not go out and dig up specimens himself, instead drawing on his network of colleagues to send him things they found in their travels. While most collections included a wide variety of natural specimens, Morton specialized in skulls alone. Soon, people were sending Morton skulls from all over the place – as historian Ann Fabian recounts, “His 138 donors included missionaries in Africa, doctors in Florida and Cuba, diplomats in Mexico and Cairo, white settlers sulking through hot summers in Indiana, soldiers in Georgia, explorers in the Arctic, scientists in Oregon, and a president of Venezuela. They remembered Morton on their summer tramps and expeditions and whenever they chanced on dead bodies.”

Sarah: One thing I find fascinating about this massive skull collection was that Morton’s friends sometimes teased him about what they called his “Golgotha,” a reference to the place where Jesus was crucified, Golgotha, or the ‘place of the skull.’

A black and white etching of a skull from Crania Americana

A skull of a Puelche person from Patagonia, depicted in Crania Americana | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In 1839, Morton published his magnum opus: Crania Americana. In the book, Morton demonstrated that white people had the largest brains – averaging 87 cubic inches. Black people had the smallest (averaging 78 cu. in.) and Native Americans were somewhere in the middle (82 cu. in.). He was able to calculate this brain capacity by filling skulls with stuff to measure their volume – after trying different materials, he landed on bb-sized lead shot. He correlated these volume measurements directly to intelligence, behavior, and civilization. He also used some of the principles of phrenology, in which you discern personality, behavior, and other traits by reading the shape and bumps of the skull to develop what to him seemed like a truly accurate scientific understanding of the way that entire races of people thought and acted – or what Morton called “national traits.” According to Morton, his measurements proved – and I’m going to quote here from archaeologist David Hurst Thomas – “that Caucasians were the superior race, with Teutons and Anglo-Saxons on the top, Jews in the middle, and Hindus on the bottom. He found that the “Esquimeaux” [Eskimo] of Greenland to be “crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate, and unfeeling, their mental faculties from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood.” The Chinese were almost as bad, “a monkey race,” and the black Hottentots were like “the lower animals.”

Averill: That’s pretty bad, but Morton’s theories actually got much worse. We mentioned before that Morton and his ilk believed that there weren’t just different races of humans, but that the different races actually constituted different species. One of the sticking points of biology and other natural sciences in the 19th century was how this related to the Creation. Of course, at this point, there was really no alternative theory to the one taught in the Bible – that a deity created the Earth in six days, including humans and animals and literally everything else, This is before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and other publications. So 19th century scientists were operating within what was essentially a Biblical interpretation of science. The problem was with how the races, or species, of humans related to the original creation. Were all the various races all products of the same creation? In other words, were all people – black, white, red, yellow, as 19th c. people conceived of them – descendants of Adam and Eve? Or were there multiple creations, producing each race in its own way? This question wasn’t just philosophical or theological – it had really critical political ramifications. If all human beings were really descendant from the same common ancestors, then they were, essentially, equals. And if that were the case, America had pretty serious problems. I think we’re all familiar with the inherent contradiction of declaring that all Americans have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” while also keeping black men and women in chattel slavery, a problem that we often think of as “the American paradox,” or the “Jeffersonian dilemma.” If science proved that all Americans – and indeed, all humans worldwide – were descendant from the same creation, how could anyone justify enslavement or other forms of oppression?

Sarah: But Morton’s scientific findings in Crania Americana, he argued, indicated that that was not the case. Rather, the various skull capacities indicated that human beings were created at different times, and were not all descendant from a single creation, and certainly not all from Adam and Eve. His findings seemed to offer scientific proof that white people were created by God to be superior to his other, lesser, creations. This justified slavery – in fact, a Southern medical journal lauded Morton as a kind of patron saint, writing in 1851, “We of the South should consider him as our benefactor, for aiding most materially in giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.” The black race was not as advanced as the white race, not because of unequal access to education or any other environmental reason, but because of their biological make up. A similar line of reasoning was applied to Native Americans. In 1855, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous writer and physician, wrote a poem in which he declared that “the Redman was a sketch in red crayons of a rudimental manhood to keep the continent from being a blank until the true lord of creation should come to claim it.” In other words, Morton’s scientific findings solidified what most white Americans already believed, or wanted to believe. Native Americans were placeholders. This allowed Americans to continue to believe in the trope of the “noble savage” while also justifying what amounted to a genocide in order to clear the land of tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Averill: Today, we would call Morton’s theories a form of biological determinism. In other words, the theory that your biological makeup dictates everything about you – not only your eye color or hair color, but also your behavior and decisions. It was their biological makeup that made Native Americans resist the US government’s treaties or fight back against the US Army – even though we know now that signing treaties or surrendering was often detrimental to tribal interests. It also meant that they were incapable of actually joining the ranks of the American citizenry. They could never be truly civilized. In fact, while most people understood that they were human, they did not believe they were fully human in the same way that African Americans were not fully human – they were more akin to animals. This was a self-confirming theory, because it didn’t just pave the way for decimating native populations, but also for collecting their bodies and skulls in the name of science – they were really more animals than humans.

Sarah: Morton’s theories only seemed to be confirmed as the century wore on. As Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection were published and made their way into the scientific canon, they seemed to validate Morton’s general theories. The idea that Native Americans were truly a separate species became modified slightly into Darwin’s theory of evolution. For example, Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester-based lawyer with a passion for ethnography, began to argue that the Native Americans living in the 19th century were the last of a vastly changed and ultimately vanishing breed. Morgan established his career in ethnography by writing about the history and culture of the Haudenosaunee – in 1851, he published his first book, The League of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, with the help of Seneca Ely S. Parker, who had served on General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff during the Civil War. In the book, Morgan argued that Native Americans cultures were no longer what they were – in other words, the real Indians were all dead, and the living Indians were all sort of watered-down versions of the real thing.

Averill: Later in his career, Morgan refined his theories to parallel the general theories of Charles Darwin. In books published in 1870 and 1871, he argued that all of humanity was on a path of social evolution. All of humankind was on a kind of evolutionary ladder, with the least civilized at the bottom, and the most at the top. Morgan separated people into three main categories: savages at the bottom, barbarians in the middle, and the civilized at the top. Groups could move on that hierarchy, but only so far. For instance, Native Americans began in utter savagery, he argued, but some groups, like the Haudenosaunee, had defied their “inferior mental status” to reach the status of Middle Barbarism. This might sound familiar – that’s because it’s virtually the same thing as Social Darwinism, the most mainstream racial pseudoscience of the 19th and early 20th century, also based on the theories of Charles Darwin. Social Darwinism was first articulated by Francis Galton, Darwin’s half-cousin, and described humanity in very similar terms: all of humankind was on a evolutionary ladder, with the most evolved on top, and the least on the bottom. While it was possible for races or groups to become more evolved – after all, everyone was constantly in the process of evolution – those that were biologically determined to be superior would always be on top. This was the perfect way to rectify the trope of the Noble Savage with the belief that Native Americans needed to make way for white folks. The ultimate oppression of Native Americans wasn’t because white people were cruel or greedy, but because it was the inevitable, biologically determined result of the evolutionary process.

Sarah: . This also all meant that for most 19th Americans, the bodies of Native people weren’t really human bodies. While Americans had strict expectations about how white bodies should be treated after death, they didn’t extend those same beliefs to those lower on the evolutionary ladder. This coincided with two other important factors in the second-half of the 19th century. First, after the Civil War ended, the US Army found itself with more men than ever – men which they used to bring Native Americans to heel in the west. This period, which we know sort of colloquially as “The Indian Wars,” resulted in incredible loss of Indian lives from pitched battle, sickness, exposure, starvation, and of course, massacres at the hands of white troops. Second, America was building its first national natural history and anatomy museums: The Smithsonian Institution and the Army Medical Museum. Smaller collections and museums also cropped up all around the United States. The result was pretty serious demand for specimens to fill them. For instance, when naturalist Louis Agassiz was getting desperate for bodies to fill his new museum at Harvard, he wrote directly to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to request the right to Native American bodies killed, or at least discovered, by the US Army: “Let me have the bodies of some Indians. All that would be necessary would be to forward the body express in a box. In case the weather was not very cold, direct the surgeon in charge to inject through the carotids a solution of arsenate of soda. I should like one or two handsome fellows and the heads of two or three more.”

Averill: In the case of the Army Medical Museum – which we’ll call the AMM – which was run by the Army itself, in 1862, Surgeon General William A Hammond had actually mandated that surgeons keep all interesting or important cases and forward them to the museum. During the war, this applied to soldiers, but after the war, it was mostly used with the bodies of Native Americans. One surgeon sent specimen after specimen from the Dakota territories. The first was a “squaw having remarkable beauty,” followed by an old man “who died at his post on the seventh day of Jan. 1869 and was buried in his blankets and furs in the ground about half mile from the Fort.” The surgeon wrote in the note that accompanied the head that he had snuck out to disinter the man’s head when he believed the man’s family and friends would not be watching. “I secured the head in the night of the day he was buried. From the fact he was buried near these lodges, I did not know but what I was suspected in this business, and that it was their intention to keep watch over the body. Believing that they would hardly think I would steal his head before he was cold in the grave, I early in the evening with two of my hospital attendants secured this specimen.” Anthropologist Simon Harrison has interpreted stories like this one as evidence that bone collecting was not purely motivated by scientific interest. Instead, he (and others, we should say) argue that these stories have a lot in common with stories of adventure, hunting, and trophy gathering – sneaking about, dodging danger, avoiding the watchful eyes of those who might be protecting the bodies. Hunting for specimens was itself a form of adventure.

Several small portraits of Cheyenne people, both old black and white photographs and color photographs of modern Cheyenne

Portraits of several Cheyenne members, past and present | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Often, it didn’t take much derring-do for military surgeons to do their collecting. It was incredibly common for military surgeons to descend on sites of massacres to collect body parts for the AMM. Military surgeon B. E. Frye was quick to descend after some soldiers and local men murdered a group of Pawnee as they stopped by a white-owned farm to trade. Frye immediately dispatched an envoy to gather the heads of the Pawnee men, but only managed to get a few before both a blizzard and some offended Pawnee arrived. When the weather cleared, Frye was back at it. By the time he was done, he sent 26 cleaned and prepared skulls to Washington, including skulls of dead Cheyenne, Caddo, Wichita, and Osage members. Just to give you an idea of what this looked like, I want to quote directly here from David Hurst Thomas: “Fryer was particularly proud of his Pawnee specimens, four of which were recovered in prime condition, but two others, unfortunately, “were injured a good deal by the soldiers, who shot into the bodies and heads several times in the fight in which these Indians were killed.” I find that so telling – he’s talking about these people who were slaughtered, and what he’s actually lamenting is that his specimens aren’t ideal. Over the course of four years, Fryer sent the AMM 42 Native American skulls, adding to the over 800 that the museum already held.

Averill: There are so many more stories like these, and we could go on and on and on about bone collecting and bodies on display in museums, but we want to come back to the Kennewick Man before we close. We don’t mean to suggest that this is the whole story – just take a look at the show notes to see just a sampling of some of the many books written on this topic, and we hope you’ll read one or two of them if you’re interested in this! But anyway, anyway – let’s close by talking about the Kennewick Man. Remember, he’s the skeleton that was found in the Columbia River in Washington in 1996. We mentioned that Kennewick Man was determined to be the oldest skeleton ever discovered in North America, and anthropologists hoped that he might be able to help them uncover one of the great mysteries of North American settlement: did humans arrive in North America, either by foot across the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska, or maybe by canoe? Or did they already exist in North America well before they could ever have traveled across the land bridge? Some anthropologists believed that Kennewick Man must be evidence of the land bridge theory because, they argued, he had “Caucasoid” features. They believed, based on their own measurements and analyses, that the skull could not be Native American, at least as we know them today, and was therefore evidence that so-called “Caucasian” people migrated to North America first.

The skull of Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: But other anthropologists found this super problematic. The measurements that scientists used – and often still use – to determine the race of the person who produced a skull or bone is based on comparison to centuries of studies on other skulls and bones. But how was “race” determined in those bones used as the constant? For the most part, it was based on the scientific work of those ethnographers like Morton and Morgan and the military surgeons of the AMM. As David Hurst Thomas says, “in other words, the baseline racial labels in the reference collections reflect little more than folk stereotypes.” They made no allowances for a variety of factors that could change the measurements of those skulls – “natural selection, genetic drift, disease, acclimatization, stress, etc.” So, in incredibly over simplified terms, we used our own racial assumptions to create the science of race, which we now use to determine race. Did that make sense? Maybe not. Either way, calling the Kennewick Man “Caucasoid” was essentially calling him white.

Averill: I think we can all see the implications of this. Newspaper and other media reports of the Kennewick Man often made a big deal of the fact that he was “Caucasoid” or “Caucasian” in addition to being the oldest known inhabitant of North America. This suggested two things: one, that race is immutable and has been since the DAWN OF TIME, and second, that white people were here first. Casual readers latched on to that idea – in fact, a group called the Asatru Folk Assembly, which is made up of former KKK and Aryan nation members, latched on to the idea that white people were in America first as evidence that this is, fundamentally, a land for white people. Louis Beam, a member of this group, wrote an article called “Dead Indians Don’t Lie,” in which is argues that the Kennewick Man is the scientific evidence for a white America.

Sarah: But the Kennewick Man is also problematic for the same reason as all the other skulls and bones mentioned in this episode are problematic: he is another instance where scientists claimed a human body, and kept it, without the honor of burial, in the name of science. For some Americans, this body is not the Kennewick Man, but the Ancient One, an ancestor who belongs with the tribe. But soon after discovering his incredible age, scientists made moves to protect their rights to the skeleton. They were up against a law called the Native Americans Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, that requires that all agencies and institutions that receive federal funding return any so-called Native American “cultural items” to their tribes. This landmark law recognizes that bodily remains and other items were essentially stolen in the name of science, and that bodily remains in particular deserve to be reunited with their tribal descendants and given a proper burial. Kennewick Man was very old, and scientists knew his body could be reclaimed under NAGPRA, so they took steps to keep him. In 1997, a judge agreed, stating that his body was “a book that they can read, a history written in bone instead of on paper, just as the history of a region may be read by analyzing layers of rock or ice, or the rings of a tree.”


Averill: The echoes of Morton and Morgan and others are really obvious in that quote – this Native American body is the same thing as a tree or rock, something to be studied and kept in a natural history museum, and certainly not requiring or deserving a burial. Now, we should acknowledge: this is straight up complicated. Old bones can teach us stuff. But what’s the line between learning from the dead and perpetuating out of date racist thinking and systems of oppression? Well, the tribes of the area where Kennewick Man – the Ancient One – was found demanded that he be returned to them under NAGPRA, just as the scholars feared. But in order for them to win the case, they had to prove that they had a direct genetic link to The Ancient One. After almost a decade, in 2015, it was found that the Ancient One was genetically linked to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and in 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed the findings and returned the body to five tribes who all claimed shared relation to the Kennewick Man. Just last year, in February 2017, two hundred members of the five tribes – the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids – all came together to bury The Ancient One in a secret location.



A Long, Complicated Battle Over 9000 Year Old Bones is Finally Over.” Code Switch, May 5, 2016.

Fabian, Ann. The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois. New York: Dodd Mead & Company, 1922.

Morton, Samuel George. Crania Americana, or A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839.

Redman, Samuel J. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets.” Smithsonian Magazine. September 2014.

Kennewick Man, The Ancient One. The Burke Museum. February 20, 2017.



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