Skull Wars


While penning an essay on the book ‘Skull Wars,’, the question of owning the past of USA or America comes to the fore. According to prologue of the book ‘Skull Wars Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity, the author of the prologue mentions the intention of the whites or Caucasians to ascertain themselves as the ancient landlords of America in the place of native Indian tribes present in that country.

This assertion leads to a discussion about anthropologists’ right to research as well as the native communities and minorities rights on their ancient land.

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Who Owns the Past?

In the wake of controversy created by Kennewick man, the scientific community of USA has found a cue to search for original ancient or first landlords of present America, who are prior to the Native Americans lived in the continent. According to the prologue of the book ‘Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity’, the author states as follows.

‘Some have even seen Kennewick Man as the “Great White Hope,” the last best chance to establish Caucasians as the original landlords of America (xxxviii).

The hope presumed in the above quote and the professional arrogance of the scientific community together further increases the quest of the Native Americans to consolidate their identity. If really Caucasians are the original landlords of America by the virtue of reaching or living in the land before the presently considered Native Americans, one has to find the reason for their disappearance.

Even that if proved scientifically, it will be a blow for the Native Americans, who are enjoying minority status in the country. As the history states that the Columbus had killed many Native Indians in America, when landed in the continent in 15th Century, the scientific community may claim the same in the future about the disappearance of Caucasians thousands of years ago.

This further starts a war of historical assumptions or findings when no assumption or finding holds strong or enjoys the unanimous support from the people of diverse beliefs and perceptions. The word ‘assumptions’ mentioned here arises from the fact of ‘power to name’ a land or a territory and the familiarity or the popularity it gets in the future due to the media or historians, who may have seen only one side of the coin.

In this regard, Thoms David Hurst in the first page of his book ‘Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity’ mentions the ‘power to name’ wielded by Columbus on behalf of Spain in 1492 and by James Cabot in 1497 on behalf of England regarding the naming of the Island they found in Atlantic Ocean.

The power of Columbus in those days may be the military might that could not be opposed by the Natives of Guanahani, as they called their home land. The skill of defining a land and the people as well as utilising them to the advantages of the Europeans might have given them a unique capacity of owning them by exploring the natural resources through migrants.

Moreover, the view point of scientific community that stopping them from examining the Kennewick man’s remains may result in depriving the people to have knowledge about the remote past that is not known, until now, can be contested as they do not have the legal right to test and compare the DNA of the ancient remains with present people of different races indicates the deep racial division even in the modern era.

The Power to Study and Explore the Past

Owning the past comes from the findings of the research that establishhes one community’s existence in a land in the remote past. Coming to the Columbus fact again, he named the Caribbean Islands as India or Indies without knowing the fact that they are not actually the part of India, which is east of Indus.

As he explored towards west in search of an Eastern country India, he thought the Islands that came in his way as the one he came out searching. As per the then and the present facts, his assumptions were false and the land he found is not India but is America.

Though the history corrected the wrong committed by Columbus by identifying America and Caribbean Islands as India, the present context of an attempt of owning the origin of Kennewick man’s identity to Caucasians is not justifiable. This argument can find ground in the research findings that DNA haplo group X, which was found in Red Indians was also found in the people from Western Europe.[1]

When there are genetic comparisons between Red Indians and Western Europe people, the argument of scientific community about the arrival of Europeans to America from Western Europe need not be based on Kennewick man’s remains found in 20th century. Hence, in this context of ‘power to study and explore the past’ it is necessary to mention the Roosevelt’s opinions quoted by Thomas David Hurst in page 139 of his book ‘Skull Wars: Kennewick man, Archaeology, and battle for Native American Identity.

With his Tiffany Silver Bowie knife, fringed buckskin shirt, and alligator boots, Roosevelt managed to combine an aristocratic style with a no-nonsense image of frontier America. In the first volume of The Winning of the West (1889), he warned the sentimentalists that the Indians had no real title to America because they had never effectively occupied the land’ (139).

In this regard Thomas David Hurst (2000) mentions Alan Trachtenberg’s words as ‘the westward experience, a foreclosing event, an inevitable advance from low to high, from simple to complex, and in more senses than one, from Indian to American’ (140).

This may also be true that Archaeology in the generation of Roosevelt has been a way to document the course of American culture from evolutionary stage to the next-from “Indian to American” and in the process, validate the doctrines of progress and manifest destiny. Archaeologists and historians usually obliged them, admits the historian Frederick Hoxie, providing the American public “with the image of an Indian people and Indian history that conformed to the power relationships of the day (140).

The same is true till date as Army corps not obeying the legislation of congress has filled the Kennewick man’s site with soil and stopped the researchers from further exploring the site. In this regard of ‘Skull Wars’ the topic of arbiter for knowledge and multi-vocality comes to the fore.

Arbiter of Knowledge or Multy-Vocality

Regarding the knowledge aspect, it is necessary to mention the Skull wars fought in the Portland court room in the case Bonnichsen et al. v. United States of America. The scientists in Bonnichsen et al who are professors, and anthropologists questioned the denial to access the Kennewick man’s bones to do research on them so that his time period of existence and ethnicity could be identified. They even argued that the denial is the violation of civil rights of scientists.

Though the skeleton of Kennewick man is one of the complete and the ancient skeletons in America, deciding on history of Native Americans based on the composition and state of just one skeleton also should be questioned as it only indicates the usage of tools of that time but not the political occupation of the land. The pivotal concept that needs attention in this context is that the scientific observations and findings are used to interpret diversified aspects ranging from history of mankind to details of different ethnic tribes.

One can be permitted scientifically evaluate the ways and means of life in the time of the Kennewick man’s period using his skeleton, but it is not proper to conclude on the history of America prior to Columbus and Native American tribes. Hence, it is necessary to have an authority to decide on the interpretation of scientific facts and arbiter of knowledge can do this. However, it may not curtail the multi-vocality in the society as there are numerous forums in the modern society to air the view of different communities.

Responsibility of Anthropologists

In the presence arbiter of knowledge, the statements of the type made by James Chatter indicating that Kennewick man may be of Caucasian origin may not arise.

Irrespective of the truth and false in those statements, it is true that he made those statements without testing the DNA of the skeleton comparing with the present-day people. As it defies logic and scientific argument, and that those statements were made by a scientist, it is necessary to have an arbiter of knowledge not only to safeguard the interests of people whose voice is not as loud as scientific community in the present case.

The arbiter of knowledge could also be used to increase the responsibility of archaeologists who come out with their interpretations based on scientific facts, thus indirectly stating that their interpretations are also facts, which disturbs the living human subjects based on the interpretations on the dead human subjects.


In this regard of dead human subjects, the digging of dead Indians by archaeologist comes to the fore and it is necessary to remind the NAGPRA legislation that took shape in that backdrop. In this regard, Thomas David Hurst in page 209 of his book ‘Skull Wars: Kennewick man, Archaeology and battle for Native American Identity’ reminds about 1971 confrontations that arose due to the digging of Indian bodies by Archaeologists.

That means the Archaeologists are studying bodies of native tribes, but the latter are not doing so. This indicates a chasm between the knowledge of Americans other than native tribes present in USA. The knowledge of the former is far greater than that of the latter.

Hence, it will be difficult to Native Americans to get support for their claims based on oral history passed on from generations. As this system has not been recognised by scientific community, the legislations like NAGPRA. Though the famous bio archaeologist Douglas Ubelaker states that

I explicitly assume that no living culture, religion, interest groups, or biological population has any moral or legal right to the exclusive use or regulation of ancient human skeletons since all humans are members of a single species’ (209).

the archaeologists are trying to establish Caucasian landlordship of America in terms of history, though they have the same in the terms of law. If they achieve their goal, the native Indians may find it difficult to protect their identity, and the legislations like NAGPRA are necessary. The amendment made by Senator John McCain, which is not yet approved by Congress is also a necessity in the present context of controversy over the history. [2]


As per the discussion and the points raised in this essay, it is necessary to recognize that there should be a system or authority comprised with persons from scientific as well social communities to decide on the interpretations of scientific facts found in research done on ancient dead bodies.

There is a need for the government to make a law regarding the same aspect as interpretation is different from fact finding. A fact finding research expert may not interpret the findings correctly, and it is necessary to recognize that it is a separate field of expertise and should not be left to anthropologists and historians. From this point of view, the amendment suggested by McCain to NAGPRA law is also a necessity to avoid unwanted controversies rising from the scientific observations.

Works Cited

Thomas David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York, Basic Books. 2000.

Frederika A. Kaestle, Ricky A. Kittles, Andrea L. Roth, and Edward J. Ungvarsky, “Database Limitations on the Evidentiary Value of Forensic Mitochondrial DNA Evidence,” American Criminal Law Review 43.1 (2006), Questia, Web, 14 Sept. 2011.

Forensic Science. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Updated in 2020. Retrieved on 14th September 2011 from <>

Frederika A. Kaestle, Ricky A. Kittles, Andrea L. Roth, and Edward J. Ungvarsky, “Database Limitations on the Evidentiary Value of Forensic Mitochondrial DNA Evidence,” American Criminal Law Review 43.1 (2006), Questia, Web, 14 Sept. 2011. ^
Forensic Science. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Updated in 2020. Retrieved on 14th September 2011 from <>


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