Anthropologists Disagree About Race and Bones

Oct. 6, 2001 -- When an ancient skeleton was unearthed in the Pacific Northwest four years ago, some anthropologists said the skull didn’t resemble modern American Indians, spurring speculation that Indians weren’t the only, or even the first, people to arrive in the Americas.

The 9,000-year-old skeleton, now known as Kennewick Man, died when he was 45-50 years old, according to a government study. His pelvis had grown over a 2-inch-long stone point embedded in his hip, perhaps giving him a limp. He also had suffered injuries to his skull and left arm, as well as broken ribs many years before he died.

Scientists also took a close look at Kennewick Man’s face. Some said the bones looked Asian. Others said they were Caucasian, or even Neanderthal.

But just how much can the framework of the body tell about the person who lived inside of it?

Ancient Remains at Stake

That question now holds particular consequence after a lengthy custody battle between scientists and Indian tribes over the skeleton. The tribes, lead by the Umatilla, claimed the Kennewick Man as an ancestor. They recently won that battle in a ruling by the Department of the Interior under a federal law that gives Indian tribes the right to claim all pre-European human remains if they are able establish cultural affiliation.

Bruce Babbit, the Secretary of the Interior, said two years of study by his department persuaded him that the bones should be returned to tribes, who have said they’ll rebury the bones. But a lawsuit filed by eight anthropologists for the right to study the remains is pending against the federal government.

Scientists have studied the biological concept of race for centuries, most infamously to find differences of intelligence or character they thought corresponded with skin color. Although such theories have since been disproved and exposed past European scientists’ feelings of superiority, today’s anthropologists still closely analyze skeletons for the tiny differences — mainly in the skull and femur bones — to detect where a person’s ancestors came from.

Forensic anthropologists, experts in skeletons that do work for law enforcement agencies, say they are extremely accurate at deciphering the signs that identify a dead person’s bones as African, Caucasian, Asian or American Indian.

“We produce as much accuracy in race as we do with sex and age,” says George W. Gill, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Wyoming and one of the eight anthropologists who are suing the federal government in the Kennewick case.

Distinguishing Characteristics

Gill is one of about 60 certified forensic anthropologists in the U.S. and Canada to assist in the detection of crime through evidence found on human bodies. He is also an expert in assessing race from skeletons. His methods for combining several skeletal traits to evaluate ancestry are widely used in the field of forensic anthropology.

Using measuring tools called calipers — with adjustable pieces that slide or spread apart to measure length or thickness — forensic anthropologists take hundreds of measurements from a skeleton to assess race. The measurements include length, width and projection of the nasal bones, the form of the chin, the shape of the skull and brow and the way bones have fused together, among dozens of others.

These measurements are compared to the indexes made from thousands of measurements of major population groups, which can tell scientists generally where a person’s ancestors came from.

Based on measurements of the Kennewick skeleton, the National Park Service report states that the skeleton is biologically affiliated most closely with groups from Polynesia and the Ainu of Japan, a group indigenous to northern Japan who are physically different from most Japanese.

Many archaeologists believe the Ainu are the descendents of a population that lived in many parts of south Asia thousands of years ago, and had some physical traits that are similar to Caucasians, such as wavy hair and thick facial hair.

“The fact is, Caucasoid people used to be a much wider population,” says Gill. “This can be seen in the Ainu of Japan. All of Japan, even just 3,000 years ago were bearded, white people.”

Race Isn’t Real?

But some scientists say bone measurements can’t determine race because race, to begin with, isn’t real.

Norman Sauer, a professor at Michigan State University and a colleague of Gill’s recognizes that different physical characteristics in humans corresponds to where they or their ancestors came from. But he doesn’t buy the concept of race, which he characterizes as a false method of categorizing humans. He says this is a difficult concept for people to grasp.

“You might ask, if races don’t exist, than why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them?” says Sauer. That’s because, he says, humans have invented race and it has endured as a concept in society, but can not be defined biologically.

Sauer believes traits that show how a person is related to a larger population group are not the same as race, which he says is a system of classification that has no sharp, defining lines. Instead, he says, human differences should be seen as a continuum with gradual change, rather than a few distinct groups.

“If you were to walk from Europe to Africa, where do you put the line?” asks Sauer. “All of the change is gradual. The lines are historical and political. It’s in people’s minds.”

Recent genetic evidence seems to bolster Sauer’s claim that race is all in the mind.

Scientists involved in the sequencing of the human genome say they think their work will prove that race can’t be seen in our genes.

“What we’ve shown is the concept of race has no scientific basis,” Craig Venter, the head of Celera Genomics, said in June. Celera announced the near completion of the sequencing of the human genome this summer, along with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project.

Populating the Americas

Gill agrees that racial differences are fluid, but he says that doesn’t mean the differences don’t having meaning for scientists.

Gill says the reason for the shift in thought about race is that anthropologists, especially cultural anthropologists are uncomfortable about acknowledging racial differences because it might be seen as implying a kind of hierarchy.

“I wish we could move on beyond [terms like Caucasoid] and use new terminology that reflects the complexity of the field,” says Gill.

He says it is the complexity of human variation and its geographical ties that make archaeological finds like the Kennewick Man important to study. Archaeologists are still struggling to understand when humans came to the Americas — whether they came by boat or by foot, in waves or in continuous migration.

These are some of the biggest questions remaining in American archaeology. They’re also what make the Kennewick Man such a puzzling and contentious find.