Category Archives: Anthropology

The Ancestral Journey of the Navajo

For years,  anthropologists and archaeologists  have puzzled over the origins of two famous aboriginal groups in the American Southwest:  the Navajo and Apache people. The traditional  languages spoken by the Navajo and the Apache differ strikingly from those of their neighbors,  so much so that if you look at a linguistic map their homelands stand out like islands in a great sea.

But their languages  are very closely related to the mother tongues of aboriginal people living in the subarctic in northwestern Canada and Alaska:  indeed they belong to the same Athapaskan family.  Moreover,   linguists have long suggested that the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache people splintered off from their subarctic cousins roughly 1200 years ago.  This begs a fascinating question.   What might have prompted the ancestral Navajo and Apache to abandon their homeland in the northern forests and  journey thousands of miles south to a very unfamiliar desert?

Some years ago,  University of Alaska archaeologist William Workman proposed a possible answer.   He suggested that the eruption of the  White River volcano in southern Alaska around 1200 years ago could well have driven out both game and human hunters.    Ash from the volcano blanketed a region of some 250,000 square kilometers:  in some parts it reached 1.5 meters in thickness.  All this, observed Workman, could well have forced the region’s Athapaskan speakers  to search for a new homeland in the south.

Yesterday,  a team led by Simon Fraser University researcher Tyler Kuhn shed new light on the dire nature of this eruption.  In a new online paper in Molecular Ecology,  Kuhn and his colleagues compared ancient DNA from caribou bones from the Yukon that dated before and after A. D. 1000.  As the team discovered, the caribou living there before the White River eruption were genetically different from the caribou that resided there after.

In other words,  a big change occurred in the local caribou population around the time of the White River eruption.   The old herds vanished,  and later new caribou herds moved in–quite likely as the land greened and grasses,   sedges, willows and the like took hold once again.

All this strongly suggests that Athapaskan hunters  in the area would have struggled to  survive after the eruption.  And indeed,  archaeological evidence from the Yukon points to a major human transition as well.  Before the eruption, the local hunters  relied on throwing darts as their main weapon.  After the ash fell, however,  the inhabitants favored bow and arrows.

We are still a long way from definitive answers,  but I’d say that it is looking more and more as if immense volcanic ash clouds, sunless days and a terrible  famine   changed the course of North American prehistory,  pushing ancestors of the Navajo and the Apache peoples far to the south.


Another Step Closer to Waking the Dead

This has been quite a week for ancient DNA stories.  First, the feature article in Archaeology magazine about the possibility of Neanderthal cloning.  And yesterday,  a research paper in Nature reporting the success of an international team in reconstructing the ancient genome of a 4000-year-old man from northwestern Greenland.

The latter project clearly takes us one step closer towards the ability to clone a Neanderthal,  the subject of my last two posts.   But today,  I’d to focus on the new research from Greenland and what I think is important about it.

The team, led by Eske Willerslev,  a very, very  media-savvy researcher at the University of Copenhagen (whose work I have posted on before), obtained its ancient DNA from a tuft of human hair  excavated by an archaeological team in 1986 from a site in northwestern Greenland.  Willerslev and his colleagues make a strong claim that they have ruled out modern contamination.

The archaeologist who excavated the hair has gone on record stating in the 87 pages of supplementary material posted by  Nature that none of the ethnic Greenlanders on his team touched the sample.   He also affirms that no one who was likely of Asian descent handled the hair later during its storage in the museum.

So the team does indeed seem to be working with an uncontaminated ancient sample.  And Willerslev–an expert on ancient DNA–and his Ph.D. student Morten Rasmussen report that the team has reconstructed 80 percent of the nuclear genome.  Based on this,  the team has learned a number of things.

Number one,  the hair belonged to a man who descended from northern-eastern Siberians who migrated to the New World as early as 6400 years ago.  Number two,  the individual in question had blood type A+, brown eyes,  dark skin,  a predisposition to baldness, a genetic adaptation to polar cold,  and other identifiable traits.

Archaeologists already knew, however,  from decades of painstaking study of artifacts that the early Greenlanders descended from northern Asian migrants.   No surprises there.  What is new,  and I think very exciting,  are all the  details of appearance and physiology that have come to light about this particular  individual– gleaned from just a few hairs.

Archaeology has never been very good at getting down to the level of the individual, particularly in that vast expanse of time we call prehistory.   Excavations of  house floors,  middens,  and shell mounds supply a lot of information on families,  communities and populations.   But they rarely say much if anything about individuals.  And in places like North America,  archaeologists try very hard now to avoid digging human remains–a major source of information about individuals–out of respect for Native American beliefs.

So this new ability to glean a lot of information about an individual from a human hair is bound to come in extremely handy,  and I applaud the Danish team for their success.   But its clear to me that such techniques are yet another worrying step along the road to cloning an ancient human or an ancient hominin.

The Danish led team is trying to calm our fears.  “The genome we’ve reconstructed is no Frankstein’s monster,”  team member Rasmussen told EurekAlert!.  “It’s more like we’ve got the blueprints for a house, but we don’t know how to build it.”

For how long,  I wonder.  How long.

Reconstruction/drawing of Inuk by Nuka Godfredtsen.

Politics, Science and the Cloning of Neanderthals

As some of you will know,  I posted yesterday on the ethics of cloning a Neanderthal,  a subject I have been thinking about after reading an article Zach Zorich wrote for Archaeology magazine. Today Zach left a thoughtful response in the comments section of that post,  raising a number of key points.  I’d like to reply.

But first let me briefly summarize  Zach’s remarks. He notes that all the researchers he interviewed for the piece are well aware of the ethical dilemmas of such cloning and that each had given serious thought to these matters–even though such clones are clearly somewhere off in the future.

Then Zach took exception to the comparison I made between the science of creating a Neanderthal clone and Stalin’s desire to fabricate an army of “humanzees”,  human-chimpanzee hybrids.   As Zach points out, “this isn’t some mad scientist’s scenario for world domination.”  Cloning research, he points out, is part and parcel of a larger picture of legitimate medical research,  and any heavy-handed legislation to prevent Neanderthal cloning could wreak havoc with projects designed to extend and protect human life.

I see Zach’s points here, and I share his concerns about heavy-handed legislation.  I’d hate to see a law block an entire line of desperately needed medical research.  But having said that,  I still can’t shake off my anxiety about what could happen further down the road if and when science is indeed capable of cloning a Neanderthal.

Even well-meaning scientists, after all,  are unable to foresee all the consequences of their research,  as some have discovered to their rue.   In the 1960s,  for example, Norwegian researchers developed a new and very lucrative technology for ocean net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon.  So great were the profit margins that a bedazzled Canadian government agreed to permit the same technology–with the same fish–on the British Columbia coast.  Large corporations began farming Atlantic salmon in pens off the British Columbia coast in 1984, leading to the escape of tens of thousands of these alien fish into the  Pacific Ocean.  Today Atlantic salmon gobble up wild food and threaten native salmon species.

So even when guided by the best of all possible intentions,  scientists can create futures they never envisioned.  And it seems to me that when the stakes include the creation of another of our close human relatives that we need to exercise extra special care.  I think that means taking  into account worse -case scenarios, even one as dire as the intentional creation of Neanderthal clones by a malevolent political regime for the purpose of slave labor.

As Zach notes in his comments (and  I should mention in the interests of full disclosure that I know Zach and that he is my editor at Archaeology), my worst-case scenarios do indeed draw on the research I did for my book on Hitler’s archaeologists.  In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly during my four years of research and writing on the book was how terribly susceptible science is to political influence.

Most scientists need laboratories,  expensive research equipment,  and academic appointments  in order to pursue their research.  Corrupt regimes know this and they reward pliable scientists with prestigious jobs and ample research funds.  Conversely, they weed out their opponents from universities and cut off their research funding.  In Nazi Germany,  these simple strategies convinced many scientists to pursue lines of state-approved racial research that they would probably have never considered otherwise.   It could certainly happen again.

All this is to say I’m very uneasy with where this cloning research might lead us in the years to come.  I’d like to see legislators at the UN draw a line in the sand.  Cloning research for medical purposes is an important pursuit.  I’m all in favor of it.   But we should never allow cloning experiments to create Neanderthals.


Why We Should Worry about Neanderthal Clones

Should we clone Neanderthals?  That’s the provocative question that science writer and editor Zach Zorich poses in the forthcoming issue of Archaeology,  hitting the news stand on February 15th.  I received an advance copy late last week and read Zorich’s article this weekend. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since, and already I have arrived at my own  answer.  No.  No.  NO.

First of all,  I should point out that this is not a pie-in-the-sky question.  Zorich interviewed an impressive A-list of researchers–including geneticists who are sequencing the Neanderthal genome and leading paleoanthropologists who study ancient hominins–and some clearly believe that a cloned Neanderthal awaits us somewhere down the line.

So it’s not too early to begin thinking and debating about the ethics of cloning one of our hominin kin.  While some researchers champion the idea out of pure scientific curiosity and the desire to learn more about an extinct hominin,  I think it’s a terrible idea.  I simply don’t trust my fellow Homo sapiens sapiens to treat another hominin with kindness and respect.  Our track record with other primates, for example,  is appalling–using chimpanzees for circus shows and laboratory experimentation, hunting gorillas for meat,  and killing orangutan mothers  in order to sell their babies as pets.

And here’s something else that worries me about a Neanderthal clone.  In the 1920s, the Soviet leader  Josef  Stalin ordered the researcher who perfected the technique of artificial insemination,  Ilya Ivanov,  to create a “living war machine. ”  Ivanov’s brief, as American writer Charles Siebert reports  in his remarkable book, The Wachula Woods Accord,  was to artificially inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm to create a new hybrid.

Stalin dreamed of a large,  invincible Red Army and a vast slave workforce to carry out his Five Year Plans.  He thought a chimp-human hybrid would serve admirably. According to Russian newspapers,  Stalin told Ivanov “I want a new invincible human being insensitive to pain,  resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

Ivanov failed miserably to produce such chimp-human hybrid, though he certainly tried.   In 1930s,  the biologist fell from political grace and was exiled to Kazakhstan in one of the many purges of the time.

All this strikes me as an important cautionary tale.   What if one of the world’s dictators  got it into his head to clone Neanderthals as slave laborers or a new kind of soldier, one physically stronger than modern humans?   It sounds far fetched,  I know.  But I don’t think we can blithely ignore the lessons of history.

Museum Curios or Objects of Spiritual Healing?

Two days ago,  I suggested that the Vancouver Museum seriously consider repatriating a petroglyph-covered boulder in its collections to the tribal group in whose territory it was found.  The art on the boulder appears to be deteriorating badly in the museum courtyard as moss and water erode the stone,  obliterating figures that were clear as a bell in the 1930s.  I argued that repatriation would be a good solution to this problem,  for I believe that tribal group in question would have a much greater interest in taking care of the art.

But there’s also a moral argument to be made here.  I don’t think that national, provincial or city museums are the right places for objects of great spiritual importance to aboriginal peoples,  objects that still have a tremendous meaning today. These items, in my opinion,  really need to go back to the tribal group from which they came.   Imagine the outcry,  for example,  if an Egyptian museum held part of the manger of Christ in its collections and would not return it to the Vatican on request?

My views on this matter were strongly shaped by an experience I had while I was working for what is now the Royal Museum of Alberta back in the 1970s.  At the time, the museum held a collection of sacred medicine bundles once owned by healers and spiritual leaders in the Blackfoot Confederacy,  the Niitsitapi.

The museum bought the bundles back in a time when residential schools and other modern ills had badly eroded the traditional culture of the Niitsitapi.   But in the 1970s,  a few people in these tribes were actively reviving traditional spiritual practices.  They wanted their bundles back, because these sacred objects were absolutely essential to age-old spiritual practices.  The museum, however,  stubbornly refused to part with them.

Finally,  however,  four members of the Kainai Nation (part of the Niitsitapi) arrived at the museum one spring day and asked if they could take the Longtime Medicine Pipe Bundle  outdoors for prayer,  as was tradition.  As a young research assistant,  I watched them carry the bundle out past the security cameras and guards.  Outside, they walked in a procession around the museum,  with the museum director and a few other  staff members following.

As they passed the parking lot,   the  Kainai delegation broke into a run toward a waiting pickup truck.  They swiftly clambered in with the bundle  and drove away.  As I later learned,  one member of the delegation had dreamt a few weeks earlier that he could spirit away the bundle from the museum:  today the Kainai talk about how this man cast a charm over the curators.

Many of the Kainai have now returned to their traditional spiritual practices,  and I have heard that the bundle is a very cherished part of those practices.    Clearly, the museum should  have restored the bundle to the Kainai when they asked for it.

I have often heard aboriginal people talk about the sacredness of the rock art.  Isn’t it time that  museums think about giving it back to the people who rightfully own it?

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