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Afarensis shared a link to a Nature News piece on a new twist in the NAGPRA issue, which I didn’t catch. So kudos to him for picking that up. The piece, by Rex Dalton, got me to think about another thing I just recently read on the web, a blog post by a person who goes by ‘Bay Radical’ about the issues surrounding some shellmounds made by native Americans that inhabited the San Francisco Bay Area. The two issues have tangents but aren’t directly related.

That’s beside the point. As noted by Bay Radical, the shellmounds were made by Ohlone natives… or so we think. The two most prominent mounds were in Emeryville, California and Alameda, California. I currently live in Alameda, California, just down the street from one of the sites of the old mounds. I bike over the sites when I do my cycling rounds. And have been to Emeryville more times than I’d like to admit. Since I live in the Bay Area and am interested in past human life, I’m very aware of what these sites were and what they are now.

At times, Bay Radical describes what happened to the shellmounds in an a realistic tone. At other times Bay Radical describes the shellmounds in exotified manner. That’s expected. The writer does go by the nom de plume of radical. So here’s a bit of reclarification…

Shellmounds are a form of midden. Midden is known as a dump for domestic waste. In archaeology, midden provides a lot of information. I spent two years sorting thru midden from a site in Moss Landing, California. saw how native Americans did not live harmoniously with nature as often glorified in popular culture. These people obliterated populations of norther fur seals to the point of extinction.

Like all middens, shell middens contain the debris of human activity and remains of their meals. They contain information on how people lived, what they ate, how they ate. As people who study material culture, we can figure out how they processed remains, if they left any tools or artifacts in the debris, etc.

Some middens are tiny, representing a single household’s waste. In the case of the Emeryville and Alameda shellmounds, they were monumental. Bay Radical makes the case that the Emeryville shellmound was largely obliterated in an ignorant and capitalistic manner to pave the way for an amusment park, several factories, and ultimately to what it is now an outdoor shopping mall.

What the hell? The shellmounds were phenomenal. I won’t say they weren’t, they were one of the largest structures known to be made by Californian natives. But they were trash.

Some descendants of natives claim that human remains were or are in the midden piles and that the archaeologists who excavated the mounds as well as the engineers who paved over the mounds caused them great disrespect. They completely skirt over the issue that their ancestors buried their dead in what’s the equivalent of modern day landfills. If their reburial so detrimental to their spiritual well being then why were they buried in trash mounds in the first place? There’s a potential to use science to understand why these people from the past dumped their loved ones in their community trash mounds. I also do not understand how and why archaeologists and engineers who are attempting to make the sites into informative and economically viable areas are now vilified for transforming trash?

It seems like the archaeologists are the ones who completely get screwed over in situations like this, not the natives. I understand that I am taking a completely different change of tone. To many of you this maybe a big surprise. It is not that I’m flip flopping on the issues that come up with research, repatriation, cultural sensitivity and government bureaucracy. But there needs to be a balance.

Sometimes the archaeologists are to blame. In cases where archaeologists mess up, I point them out. Most notably are the issues around Yale’s stealing of Peruvian cultural heritage. In other cases, the natives are to blame. In other words, no one party is completely innocent.

Rex Dalton points out a current event, descendants of natives want to empty scientific institutions of about 120,000 human skeletons currently stored for research purposes. Anyone can claim some remain is their ancestor and remove them even if the remains are not identifiable. What purpose does this serve?

I’ve been at a meeting where academics at UC Berkeley, in charge of the Phoebe A. Hearst Musuem, raised concerns about what will happen to their collection if such a change should occur. The museum has over 10,000 human remains and is in compliance with NAGPRA. But now with discussion that any old Joe with a feather in his head can come and claim such and such humerus and such and such tooth is from their great great great grandmother and take them away raises some serious issues. If this happens it would be counter active to protecting the remains. The remains are under great care and security at institutions such as the Hearst Museum. They are also very useful to understand how humans varied as well as investigating osetopathology. If they are removed, who’s to know that they’d be returned to the rightful relatives?

Furthermore, this may come off as completely naive but I really can’t find a way to phrase it any other way… I don’t understand why it’s so important that remains from people’s ancestors from several hundred to thousand years ago has any impact on their current well being. It seems so far removed, so far detached. Of course that’s awfully ethnocentric, and I admit my athiest upbringing is why I just simply don’t fully understand this problem. But we live in the now, we need to understand how people lived, what they were like, how they varied to figure out how we all got here. That, to me, is more important than whether or not my great great cousin twice removed from 200 years ago is buried according to my cultural traditions or not.

How do you feel about these issues? In the US this is a big problem. For readers outside of the US, do you see similar issues? Also, please feel free to tell me how ignorant I am about the statements in the last paragraphs… or if I am at all.