Burial law impedes scientific discovery

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Science  24 Jun 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6293, pp. 1526
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag1641

The News at a glance item “‘Ancient One’ to get Native American burial” (6 May, p. 632) reports the reburial of the 9300-year-old skeletal remains of Kennewick Man after 2 decades of legal wrangling between Native American communities and scholars. The story does not address the scientific ramifications of this decision.

The legal battles are the result of the dissolution of American skeletal and archaeological museum collections mandated by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This law requires museums receiving federal money to turn over skeletal remains and archaeological objects to local Native American communities who can trace genetic or cultural affiliation to the human or cultural remains. NAGPRA was enacted by the U.S. Congress in response to political agitation and concerns about social justice.

The skeletal remains of about 50,000 people and 1.4 million archaeological objects have subsequently left major museums in the United States, and are therefore lost to science (1). Museum skeletal and archaeological collections constitute the raw data for biological anthropological and archaeological research. The reburial of the Kennewick material is deeply unfortunate for science. Scholars had only 2 weeks to examine the skeleton, and their results can never be replicated. Furthermore, no future refinements to ancient DNA analysis or the chemical analysis of prehistoric bone and enamel can be applied to the Kennewick specimen. In the context of war in the Middle East, the destruction of museum collections is routinely deplored as a crime against the cultural heritage of humankind. As a scientist, I feel a similar sense of loss when I hear the results of the NAGPRA legislation.


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