Words that are Chosen: DNA and the 24,000 Year-Old Siberian Boy

Today I read  some very interesting news.  Apparently a DNA connection has been made between a boy who lived in present-day Siberia 24,000 years ago and Native Americans living in present day North America.  While the articles that I’ve read so far are a little vague about the scientific detail, it seems that this boy carried with him similar DNA that is also found in early North Americans and could point to the fact that the people who carried this particular DNA not only populated the area of Europe but also made it to the Americas in ancient times.  OR, just to be controversial, does this point to a movement from North America back to Europe pre-24,000 years ago?  Hmmmmmmmm…

Backing up a little here, in a former life I received a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology.  I was in the classroom during that momentous time of the movement to repatriate the human remains of Native Americans that were gathering dust in the basements of universities and museums (or worse!) by their present day descendants.  At the time I could see that the repatriations were necessary and the right thing to do to help heal old wounds.  I also saw first hand how the scientists (and I use that term somewhat loosely) that preceded my generation really screwed things up for the rest of us!  Even though I had no concept of DNA testing in the early 1990s, and I did know that what was done to these people for generations was absolutely wrong, I was still worried that we would lose out on scientific breakthroughs that could eventually increase our understanding of where these people came from originally.  I knew their ancient journey story would be amazing and I really hoped it would be opened up for us all to appreciate.  And because of that I raise the one finger salute to all those past “scientists” who were horrible people and who ruined it for the rest of us!

Thus when I was reading this particular article today (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2511172/Native-Americans-come-Europe-reveals-DNA-testing-skeleton.html), I was shocked at either the subtle use of language, or the lack of skill of the writer of the article. The first line of the article got my attention: “DNA extracted from a young boy who died 24,000 years ago could prove that the first Native Americans were European“.  My mouth is still hanging open and my mind is totally reeling with how awful and totally screwed up this first sentence is.

Europe as a concept did not exist 24,000 years ago.  Europeans as a people did not exist 24,000 years ago.  The mind is boggled how “Europeans” could have populated the Americas “first” when they themselves were not a cultural group at the time!  Now…perhaps if you substitute the name “European” with “Caucasian” you’d get at what this article is really trying to point out.  Is what the author is actually saying here is that Caucasian people were the first to populate the North America?  Or if you really want to get controversial, “white” people populated North America first?  I may be misinterpreting what the author was getting at, but if that’s the case it’s the author’s fault for producing seriously crappy writing.  I felt like the entire floor under my feet was heaved up by the remains of thousands of Native peoples rolling in their graves when I read that first line.

What this sentence should really have said is this: “DNA extracted from a young boy who died 24,000 years ago could prove that Native Americans living in North America are related to today’s Europeans.”  Or perhaps what it should have said was, “DNA extracted (yadda yadda yadda) shows an ancient connection between people’s living in North America and in Europe in modern times.”  When read carefully, the sentence as written has an entirely different meaning, don’t you think?

Now, if you go to the very end of the article, the author refers to Kennewick Man.  As if the first line wasn’t controversial, now you have the author ending the article with the very white-centric reminder that the remains of this 9,000 year old man were considered by some to have “European” features.  (Again, substitute “white” here and you can see why someone might be offended.)  If only the stupid scientists hadn’t said anything about the way this person looked in real life (European, Native, Asian…you be the judge: http://www.newswise.com/images/uploads/2006/04/20/fullsize/Kennewick_man_skull.jpg) perhaps the Native Americans wouldn’t be fighting so hard to put him back into the ground, which quite frankly (and regrettably) he should be based upon current laws and history!  Enough is enough.  As I was taught by a very good professor back in the day, you cannot infer culture, skin color, nor physical origin just by looking at a skeleton.  The idea of Kennewick Man having “European” features is flat out a racial bias.  Only DNA testing would reveal a portion of his roots, and even then could not disprove any other connections.  The whole thing is disturbing.

The Native American people have fought a long and arduous battle to retain intellectual, spiritual and physical control over their culture and land they call home.  They have lost almost everything.  And they WERE here first.  Europeans (again, I’m talking about the ones that lived in much more modern times) came to the Americas and immediately started searching for “proof” that white Caucasian “European” people had made it here before the “Indians”.  Why?  So they could relieve their consciences?  Or maybe just to prove they were right in the land grab.  Add to that the centuries of murder, slavery, destruction of hundreds if not thousands of Native cultures, and you can see why the Native Americans today want to keep their “first” status.

(As an aside, I do find it fascinating that a fundamental part of human nature is ultimately to carve out a space for yourself and your closest friends on this planet and then hold on to it for dear life against all odds.  This is played out in the workplace (think cube space), sports arena, and in the ultimate theater of war.  The need to be “right” is ingrained in our being and is perhaps key to our survival as a species.)

We need to stop looking at DNA as a way to make people feel less or create an atmosphere that is destructive and dangerous.  Remember that DNA can only prove connections, not disprove!  Perhaps there are DNA strains in the Americas that are ancient and point to an interesting and unexpected origin for the Native Peoples here.  Perhaps there was a heck of a lot more movement of peoples than we think.  (I do think it’s fascinating how we constantly underestimate our ancestors’ abilities!)  And perhaps there will be some surprises along the way that make us all think and rethink our assumptions.  None of that is bad!  None of that lessens the epic story of these people who lived here for tens of thousands of years.

But it’s articles like this that continue to assert, and reassert the idea of “European” domination of the world both today and in ancient times that are wrong.  I am proud of my heritage, but it does not come at the price of thinking mine is any better than any other person’s origin on this planet.  I hope that the Native Americans of North America, and oppressed people everywhere, will take this kind of thing with a grain of salt and not think we “Europeans” are a bunch of morons.

We are all, after all, related to each other.  When will the family in-fighting stop!

What do you think?

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