DNA Battles

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the 2012 10th Edition of Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader continues to include the 2000 article “Battle of the Bones” (Bonnichsen and Schneider). It is more than unfortunate that the only major four-field reader for Introduction to Anthropology remains so behind on the earliest Americans and the relation of archaeology to the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Perhaps it was too late to get something more like Heather Pringle’s article in Scientific American, The First Americans (November 2011). Still, for anthropology courses using the Applying Anthropology reader, students will surely want a more current update about the earliest Americans.

The 2012 research from David Reich et al., Reconstructing Native American population history, provides a fascinating genetics update. The New York Times article “Earliest Americans Arrived in Waves, DNA Study Finds” might be seen as a good summary of the investigation. However, it’s by Nicholas Wade. And whenever Nicholas Wade is covering anything, it’s important to be on the lookout for problematic biases. Wade is a threat to science in anthropology.

What this research reveals is a complex picture of at least three migrations, with significant mixing and mating between and within the waves. As Razib Kahn points out in The first, second, and third nations–and a fact that goes unmentioned by Nicholas Wade–there is also “evidence of back-migration to eastern Siberia. . . . a neat confirmation of the reality that the separation between the Old and New World was illusory in some deep ways.”

As anthropologist Michael H. Crawford confirms in Wade’s “Earliest Americans” article, things might even get more complex if more samples are included: “The paucity of samples from North America and from coastal regions made it hard to claim a complete picture of early migrations has been attained.” The archaeological evidence reaffirms this complexity. John Noble Wilford reports that Spearheads and DNA Point to a Second Founding Society in North America.

So far so good. But at least three problematic issues from the Nicholas Wade reporting:

1. Contemporary Native Americans have very good reasons to not participate in these studies of earliest Americans.

Just like in “Battle of the Bones”–which attempts to make a science-versus-creationism argument for studying Native American remains–people take this “paucity of samples from North America” as an opportunity to bash contemporary Native Americans for opting out of these studies. Dienekes blog asks if this is “Petty identity politics contra science?” and commenters on various articles condemn Native groups for this supposedly “petty” refusal.

For many years I’ve been showing the BBC production, Bones of Contention: Native American Archaeology for Introduction to Anthropology. Produced in 1995, this film is even older than “Battle of the Bones,” but it takes a BBC perspective to give a fairer presentation of U.S. politics and Native issues. What this film at least makes clear–and seems lost on so many–is that Native Americans have plenty of good reasons to still be suspicious of genetic investigation.

Genocide. Treaty abrogation. Children sent to boarding school to be stripped of language and identity. Contemporary inequalities. The fact that every time I assign “Battle of the Bones” and screen Bones of Contention, some students openly snicker or rant about Native Americans holding back science. It’s one of the factors that went undiscussed in that re-study of Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man–how did Morton get all those skulls anyway?

Petty identity politics indeed.

Update 13 July 2012: Both Dienekes, at Petty identity politics indeed, or, holding a grudge is no excuse for anti-science and Khan, Native Americans are not special snowflakes–have objected to this section.
Update from Torso and Oblong: A commentary titled Early (and I mean early) Immigration and Genetic Testing: Why Isn’t Everyone On Board? weighs in on this “minor blog dust up.”
Update 18 July 2012: German Dziebel parses these posts and even their comment streams at Identity Politics in the Name of Science: The Battle over American Indian Blood and Bones Continues. Dziebel calls this part of my post “misguided or imprecise,” stating that “when it comes to the refusal to donate DNA samples, it’s all about a history of broken treaties, contentious land claims and the special status of American Indian tribes in the U.S. No need to invoke boarding schools or ‘inequalities.'” I would basically agree with the need for better precision on this issue.

2. Nicholas Wade calls admixture “interracial marriage”

I’m not sure what to make of this one: “Interracial marriage–or admixture, as geneticists call it” writes Nicholas Wade. Let’s start with marriage. Really? I hope no geneticist refers to admixture as marriage. Admixture is admixture, offspring, genetic shuffling. Marriage is a debatable term. Is this Wade being quaint? Euphemistic?

Then interracial. Well, that’s what Nicholas Wade would have you believe. That geneticists have defined these set entities called races, and whenever there is interracial marriage, then you get admixture. Baloney. Admixture is life, mating and mixing. All humans are admixtures and hybrids of various sorts. What is ancestral for one population is admixtured and hybrid for another–just depends when and where you want to slice things. But there are no entities out there that can be defined as races which then get admixtured. I’ve talked about this before in It’s admixture all the way down, Admixture Troubles, and Race is a Social Construction. Nicholas Wade is a prime offender for misdefining, misunderstanding, and misrepresenting admixture–he doesn’t disappoint here.

3. Franz Boas was correct about the earliest Americans (but Nicholas Wade will never tell)

Comment on Dienekes: “It’s interesting that, in the early 20th century, Franz Boas used cultural features to infer back migrations from South America to North America and from North America to Siberia” (Charles Nydorf). Unfortunately I don’t know my Boas enough on this to have a reference–I’ll take assistance! But if true–and everything about it sounds like Boas–then this study could have been read as a confirmation of Boas.

Instead, Nicholas Wade opts to devote about a third of the article to Joseph Greenberg’s contentious linguistic assertions. Perhaps this is relevant, but it seems obvious the complex genetic admixtures do not support Greenberg’s idea of “three discrete groups”–so why should this be a “substantial vindication” of Greenberg?

But more importantly, will Nicholas Wade ever write anything positive about Franz Boas? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Update 13 July 2012: Reader Matthew Bradley in the comments suggests Franz Boas, The History of the American Race. I haven’t had time to read it (see section #1 above), but thank you Matt!
Update: Unfortunately I don’t have access to the above article. Another looks promising, Migrations of Asiatic Races and Cultures to North America, but no access to that either!
Update 28 July 2012: As I suspected, Wade’s treatment of this as vindicating Greenberg is also way wide of the mark, as anthropological linguist Bruce Mannheim makes clear in Newsflash: New York Times Reports 90-Year-Old Consensus.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Earliest Americans, Battle of the Bones, Native American DNA.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/earliest-americans-bones-anthropology/. First posted 12 July 2012. Revised 21 September 2017.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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