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  • These Bones Are ReadThe Science and Politics of Ancient Native America
  • Arion T. Mayes (bio)

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est [Knowledge is power].

Sir Francis Bacon

Over the water, the frozen sea, they went to enjoy it.

They went back to find where they had come across. They were not able to find it. The ice had melted. Then they were not able to go back for the others.

Anthony F. C. Wallace and William D. Reyburn, “Crossing the Ice: A Migration Legend of the Tuscarora Indians”

At approximately 9,500 years old, two sets of human remains from La Jolla, California (W-12), known as the University House Burials due to the physical location of their discovery on property owned by the University of California, San Diego, are some of the oldest in the United States. These burials are central to a repatriation controversy between the University of California, San Diego, and the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, which represents twelve federally recognized Kumeyaay/Diegueño tribal governments in San Diego County, California.

The story of the La Jolla burials is a politically complicated one involving the Kumeyaay Indian Tribe’s efforts to claim and repatriate the La Jolla remains, the University of California, San Diego’s property issues and scientific interests, the local community’s concerns, federal law, and the question of the population origins of the La Jolla remains. This final point has become central to determining who should ultimately have control over the final disposition of the burials, a point that has [End Page 131] been, and will be, at the heart of many repatriation disputes. This article focuses on the science of determining the origins of all remains of great antiquity, including the La Jolla burials themselves.

Each Native American culture and nation has differing beliefs as to the treatment of human remains. Some are adamantly opposed to any kind of study of human remains, some are open to all types of study, and others fall somewhere in between, allowing scientific investigations that do not include invasive procedures such as DNA analysis.1 Throughout the years many groups have actually changed their positions as they themselves seek answers to questions regarding their history. The Kumeyaay have, traditionally, been disinclined to scientific investigation of skeletal remains. In an effort to resolve a repatriation issue the Kumeyaay reversed their traditional stance, requesting that a noninvasive investigation of the burials be carried out by a bioarchaeologist at San Diego State University and a Kumeyaay graduate student.

This case study brings to the forefront a continual problem of miscommunication between tribal and scientific communities and allows for a discussion on the usefulness of osteological analysis for settling such disputes. Additionally, the case study presents evidence of physical characteristics often considered quintessential Native American traits and evidence of their presence in human remains in the Americas almost ten thousand years before the present. This critical fact would have been unknown if analysis of the remains had not been done. When the invitation to carry out the analysis of the University House remains was accepted by the bioarchaeologist at San Diego State University, it was understood that the goal was to document biological evidence, by noninvasive procedures, of population relationships. This analysis was based on collecting nonmetric data on dental and skeletal traits as well as skeletal morphology; metric data would be collected where possible. Any additional information that would be indicative of a population’s biological history, such as disease patterns and occupational health, would also be documented. A surprising development during this process was the realization that, unlike in the past, where the charge was to determine if the remains were related to a specific group of Native Americans, the new challenge was to determine if they were Native American, an issue critically related to the current political controversy surrounding the subject of culturally unidentifiable human remains (CUHR).

The recently proposed changes to NAGPRA (Native American Graves [End Page 132] Protection and Repatriation Act) continue to polarize the anthropological and Native American communities as well as some within the scientific community. The current law dealing with the repatriation of Native American human remains and objects of cultural patrimony...


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pp. 131-156
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