The tensions between science and culture extend far beyond disputes over evolution. In some cases, science and culture disagree not only on what is true, but on which actions should be taken in the real world. The story of Kennewick Man is a perfect example of this.
In 1996, while two tourists were visiting Kennewick, on the Columbia River in Washington, they stumbled across a human skull. After the police collected the skull and an almost completely intact skeleton, they determined that the bones came from a Caucasian man. But strangely, there was no murder investigation. This is because, in a very strange twist, Carbon-dating tests showed that the bones were more than 9,000 years old – much older than the earliest recorded Caucasian visits to North America in the 14th Century.
Anthropologists, paleontologists, biologists, and archaeologists all whipped themselves into a fury of excitement over these bones, which were soon given the name “Kennewick Man.” Everyone, it seemed, wanted to study these remarkably well-preserved remains. At the same time, the local Umatilla Indians, whose ancestors have lived on the Columbia River for thousands of years, claimed the rights to rebury the remains, under the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). To this ancient tribe, the bones are the sacred remnants of their ancestors, and as such, they should be returned to the ground.
Debates over human remains and repatriation continue. More recently, additional human remains possessed by the University of California, San Diego, have been the center of a custody battle similar to that of the Kennewick Man. Review the basics of the dispute here:
Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation:
Science and culture
- Taking Sides: First, take a side in this controversy by outlining the following:
- Who do you think deserves ownership of the remains in each case and why?
- What should be done with these remains and what concessions would this require the scientific community and/or the tribes to make?
- Respond to your classmates’ posts and work together with them, as a class, to come up with some compromises to this issue.
- Learning from our mistakes: Without question, similar problems will be faced in the future as scientific exploration continues and more remains are likely to be found. Although the scientific method provides us with a framework for how to conduct our research of the remains, it does not take into account the ethics of scientific research. What are some additional criteria you could add to the scientific method in order to ensure that research is conducted in a moral and ethical way? Provide an example of an area of research/science that requires a code of ethics when suggesting your modifications to the scientific method.