Ancient bones a grave matter for UCSD, tribes
by Kendra Hartmann
Published - 06/09/11 - 12:12 PM | 6730 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photos courtesy of UCSD
Photos courtesy of UCSD
In the mid-1970s, there were no archeologists working for the University of California, San Diego. Archeology, in fact, didn’t make an appearance at UCSD until 1991. That’s why, when human bones were found eroding out of the earth on the grounds of UCSD’s University House — home to the UCSD chancellor — in 1976, the university turned to Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and former SIO researcher Jeffrey Bada, who was developing a dating method using human bone.

An archeological excavation revealed a surplus of bones, including a rare burial site containing two 9,000-year-old bodies buried together. The anthropological significance of such a find was evident, so a group was formed to study and test the bones. Gail Kennedy, a skeletal biologist at UCLA, recovered the skeletons and began a long study of the remains, followed by a short paper, which included basic information about the pair, such as their genders (one male, one female) and the considerable, though indeterminate, age difference between the two. Nothing else of much significance could be determined at the time.

“We had no genetics, no known relationship between the two and no idea why they died,” said Margaret Schoeninger, a professor of anthropology at UCSD and Bada’s wife. “All we knew is that they were incredibly old and there were no others like it.”

At the time, the technology to perform ancient DNA tests did not exist, so researchers didn’t have much else to go on. In recent years, however, scientists have developed the ability to isolate DNA in ancient specimens, creating the perfect opportunity to explore the history of La Jolla’s skeletons and perhaps unlock some very valuable secrets about the history of the Americas and the people who lived here. By that time, however, the saga of the skeletons had entered a new chapter of hurdles and challenges.

Enter the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. Enacted to provide protection for Native American graves, the law states that artifacts or remains found to be affiliated with a particular Native American tribe must be returned the tribe. In light of the law, the Kumeyaay Cultural and Repatriation Committee (KCRC) sent a letter to UCSD administrators asking for the remains, prompting UCSD administrators to form a committee charged with determining cultural affiliation. Schoeninger authored the study, and in the end, her report, which came out in 2008 and was sent to both the UCSD Office of the President and the United States Department of the Interior, declared the materials could not be culturally affiliated with the Kumeyaay nation.

The information contained in the report should have been a minor victory for scientists wishing to have full access to the remains. But Schoeninger said the UCSD administration refused to grant access to the bones, despite numerous requests from scientists across the globe.

“Every time a request was submitted [to study the bones], the administration responded that there was no system in place to do research on the bones, and that they were working on creating such a system, but nothing ever came of it,” Schoeninger said. “We met with the chancellor and notified the academic senate. We were not quiet, but nothing happened.”

After the Kumeyaay nation requested again to have the bones repatriated, another UCSD report surfaced, this time from the Office of the President and anonymously authored. This report, Schoeninger said, countered much of the evidence she had originally presented, though she was told no new research was conducted beyond what she had done herself. Though based on the original report, the study claimed the remains were found to be related to Native American groups and that funerary artifacts had been found at the burial site, both assertions Schoeninger said are erroneous. UCSD administration did not return requests for comment.

Now scientists are going as far as saying that UCSD administrators are preventing them from doing their jobs. In a letter sent to Science Magazine in May, Schoeninger and others wrote that UC “favors the ideology of a local American Indian group over the legitimacy or science.” Schoeninger said as part of her tenure position and the possibility of promotion, she is expected to complete a certain amount of research — research she said is impossible to conduct if the specimens are caught up in red tape.

Kumeyaay nation spokesman Steve Banegas said the only thing he asks is that the legal course of action, as laid out by NAGPRA, be followed to the letter.

“We need to let the process happen how it’s supposed to happen,” he said. “The system has been proven to work fine and it will work fine. After that happens, we can sit down and discuss everyone’s opinion and see what the options are.”

Banegas said the KCRC is not against further study of the bones, but that the group wants them repatriated first because the specimens are not being handled respectfully.

“We believe these are our ancestors, so we’re going to be careful with them,” he said. “We’re not going to say, ‘They’re ours, leave us alone.’ We would like to listen and talk and hopefully start over. We would prefer to start a relationship off on a good foot.”

Schoeninger said she doesn’t disagree with Banegas. It’s the administration’s behavior she said she’s baffled by.

“The Kumeyaay have their beliefs, and they should be respected. I think NAGPRA was a good law and the remains should be turned over to the tribes,” she said. “But we don’t know who, if anyone, these remains are related to, and we have a chance to learn something about a people that we know nothing about.”

To make matters more complicated, UCSD is attempting to renovate the chancellor’s house, which was deemed uninhabitable in 2004. An overhaul of the property has not been an easy sell with local tribes, who want any remains found there to be treated according to tradition.

“[The renovation of] the chancellor’s house is an issue,” Banegas said. “We wouldn’t need to be talking if they did everything respectfully and in the right way. That’s a burial ground, and they need to be careful.”

Scientists would welcome more materials to study, but Schoeninger said she doubts any more remains found would make their way to researchers. Some have speculated that administrators are playing hard-to-get with the bones so they can barter with tribes when it comes time to dig up the University House land.

“The only way I can make sense of this is that [the administration] wants to move ahead with the University House,” Schoeninger said. “But in the meantime, they’re ignoring their own academics, and I find that deeply disturbing.”

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