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Joseph Brown in Anthropology Laboratory

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Featured in TORCH, November 1982

Museum Specialist Joseph Brown in the National Museum of Natural History Anthropology Processing Laboratory sitting behind a table full of skulls, October 1, 1982.

Wood Carving Crow

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Similar to E168157 (see remarks for that object), this Taku Tlingit crow or raven figure appears to originate with the Taku Tlingit of the Upper Taku River area of British Columbia.

Kachina Doll

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Earthenware Whistle.

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Collections of the United States South Sea Surveying and Exploring Expedition 1838, 9, 40, 41 & 42. By T. R. Peale, U. S. Patent Office, 1846

National Anthropological Archives
Negative microfilm on file, 3/1971.

Note on title page states: The collections made by the Exploring Expedition under Capt. Wilkes were brought to Washington and unpacked at the U. S. Patent Office, where they were on exhibition for several years. About 1851 they were transferred to the Smithsonian Building. This catalogue was presented to the Nat. Museum in January 1877 by Mr Peale in person. Accompanying letter of A. H. Clark to [G. B.] Goode, March 24, 1887 transmits catalogue to Goode, stating that it was found "Among the National Institute papers several months ago." Title page refers to catalogue(s) of 134 mammal specimens and 150 ornithological species which are not included in this volume. Note with Smithsonian Institution Library card catalogue entry for a 46 page typescript of this volume states that the original Manuscript catalogs of birds and mammals are in the American Museum of Natural History, and xerox copies of both are in the MNH, Division of Mammals (Dr D. H. Johnson).

This Manuscript catalogue, formerly in the Division of Ethnology, MNH, was transferred to Smithsonian Office of Anthropology Archives by S. H. Riesenberg in 1968. Specimens described in it are the Department of Anthropology MNH, where they are indexed under "Wilkes;" there is no Accession Number. A typed copy of the Manuscript catalogue, to which the present MNH catalog numbers have been added is in the Processing Laboratory.

Catalogue of 2516 ethnological specimens, numbered 1-2487.

Some original accession data concerning anthropological specimens collected on the Wilkes Expedition are also included in section C, in the Manuscript volume catalogued in the Smithsonian Institution Library as follows: MSS c Case U58 eori U. S. Exploring Expedition Original invoices and other official papers. Estimated 73 full pages FF. Section C, "Original Invoices of Miscellaneous Specimens" (1839-41) includes "Catalogue of Boxes Barrels &c Shipped on board the American Ship Lausanne [from ?] Oahu," no date, 4 pages and other untitled lists that include some anthropological entries. Also in Section C is a 1-page "List of articles...[belonging to the] Philological Dept." signed by H[oratio ] Hale; these are mostly printed articles, but there is one reference to a Quichua and Moxa grammar, presumably a Manuscript.

Dogs Know When You're Praising Them. That Doesn't Mean They Understand Human Speech

Smithsonian Magazine

Being man’s best friend is no walk in the park. In addition to providing unconditional love, your dog must play exercise companion, get along with other domesticated pets, and even become your therapist by listening to your ceaseless one-way chatter. But what’s really going on in a dog’s head when you're talking their ear off?

A team of Hungarian neuroscientists has shown that dogs process certain aspects of speech similar to the way humans do, with specialized brain areas dedicated to discriminating both the meaning of words (what we say) as well as the tone in which they are delivered (how we say it). This shared neural circuitry between two species, the authors suggest, is evidence that the development of language in humans might have been a learned invention and not the product of unique changes in our brains. 

“When you use the command ‘sit’ you always use it in the same context. You are physically present, you look at the dog, and use a particular intonation—all while the dog is probably standing,” says Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary and lead author of the study. “But would it still work if you sang the command, if you weren’t there and said it via phone, or if the dog was lying down? We were really interested whether it was possible for dogs to actually take out the word meaning information from this—to separately process word meaning.”

In the study, Andics and his team brought 13 pet dogs to their laboratory, and trained them to remain still in an fMRI scanner—a claustrophobic space for even the most well-behaved canine. While their brain activity was monitored, the dogs listened to an audio recording with a variety of familiar praises (e.g. “well done,” “clever,” and “that's it”) as well as neutral conjunctions that are commonly used in everyday speech but had no relevant implications for the dogs  (e.g. “as if,” “such,” “yet”). To determine whether the dogs could discriminate between the “what” of the word versus how we say it, each word was spoken in either a praising intonation—characterized by a higher, more varying pitch (i.e. how you might talk to a cute toddler)—or a neutral intonation.

The results, published this week in Science, revealed that regardless of tone, speaking words of praise to pooches elicits a significant activation of the brain's left hemisphere. Past studies have shown a similar pattern of left hemispheric dominance in human speech processing and consider it to be a neurological consequence of the evolution of language. The authors of this latest study argued that this similarity could have implications for both what dogs understand and how humans process language—though scientists and science writers have cautioned not to take these conclusions too far.

The team also found that regardless of the word meaning, when the dog listened to neutral tones, there was increased activity in a region of the right hemisphere in the pup’s brain. According to the authors, this region is specifically designed to process generic acoustic information. A subsequent analysis showed that the lower frequencies characteristic of neutral tones elicited the greatest responses—a result that also mirrors auditory processing in humans, macaques and previous dog studies.

The combination of praising words and tones, however, activated very different parts of the brain. Andics and his team found that regions typically associated with reward in humans showed significant increases in activity only when praising words were delivered in a praising tone. This means that the dogs exhibited an ability to isolate and separately process word meaning, but they were then able to integrate both in the reward centers of their brain.

It’s easy to conclude that, because dogs process verbal and nonverbal information in speech similar to the way we do, they likewise understand what they are hearing. But this would be a vast oversimplification. The study “shows that dogs are capable of identifying strings of phonemes that form meaningful speech commands, rather than solely relying on the command's intonation,” says David Reby, a psychologist at the University of Sussex whose previous behavioral studies in dogs also identified parallels in speech perception between humans and dogs. “It does not, however mean that dogs are capable of understanding human language.”

Terrence Deacon, a professor of biological anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, agrees: “The fact that a dog hears a sound and responds to it preferentially with left hemisphere activation is not a surprise to me,” he says. “But our brains are handling language in a way that is radically different than this dog is handling the sound of words. Dogs don’t have an elaborate semantic network in their heads—interpreting a word as being in relation to a whole system of other words—like we do. That we can understand a complex sentence or any number of sentences is a uniquely human trait that is not being demonstrated here.”

The trained dogs sit around the MR scanner. (Image from Enikő Kubinyi)

Additionally, some experts have criticized the study’s methodology. “The Hungarian paper is wildly overinterpreted,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who has conducted numerous fMRI studies on dogs. “Because of the small sample size, one dog could easily sway the results to suggest a hemisphere bias. And even if there is a bias, it is small and there are other more likely explanations than concluding something about language processing.”

For example, because the researchers didn’t test the dogs for left hemisphere activity when they weren’t listening to words, there is no way of knowing whether the elevated activity is due to word processing, or a generally higher activation level. “We see lateralization all the time in our dog studies, as well as human studies, but we don’t usually ascribe any functional significance to it,” Berns says.

And even if the hemispheric bias is a real phenomenon, Berns says it's impossible to determine whether it is a consequence of generalized word processing or because the words that they used to test the dogs were praise words. “Human imaging studies have long shown that the left hemisphere tends to be more active to positive emotions. This could explain the Hungarian results, without invoking lexical processing,” he says.

But if the analyses are accurate, what do they say about the initial development of language in humans?

Many prevailing theories of language evolution hypothesize that a significant change in the human brain enabled mankind to start using and understanding words. However, given that the hallmark left hemisphere bias in the processing speech is not uniquely human, Andics postulates that the use of words was a human invention that arose independent of any significant brain changes.

“When humans invented the wheel, we were able to do many things we didn’t do before,” he says. “But I don’t think we gained some neural mechanism that allowed us to invent the wheel, and I think it’s the same here. The invention of words was a great cultural invention of humans, but it had nothing to do with brain changes.”

Yet evolutionary anthropologists and other experts maintain that this interpretation glosses over the complexity of human language processing. “The human brain utilizes systems that have been there for a long time,” says Deacon. “It utilizes them in different ways perhaps, but it there is not a total reorganization of the brain ... It’s not that language is a cultural invention and that brains just do this, it’s that language has recruited these systems that were originally there to do other things.”

Others don't agree that specialized speech processing was an original feature in dogs, asserting that they may have evolved this ability as they became domesticated.

“Because dogs are domesticated animals, this striking parallel may reflect the effect of artificial selection on their perceptual capabilities," says Reby. "In other words, over thousands of years, we may have selected them to efficiently process our spoken commands, and this parallel may represent a case of convergent evolution rather than an ancestral latent ability. Testing tamed—but not domesticated—animals, such as wolves should provide an answer to this fascinating question.”

Moving forward, Andics and his team will continue to explore various aspects of speech processing in dogs: how they differentiate between speakers, how they learn new words, and even how they might process a combination of words in syntax.

“Dogs are a great model for comparative studies on language processing because they care about language and care about human speech, but at the same time are distantly related to humans,” says Andics. “We believe that this is a very first step in a very interesting new direction for research.”

Ask an Archivist: Bring Your Questions Thursday, October 22

Smithsonian Institution Archives


In celebration of Archives Month, join us Thursday, October 22nd 27th, 11am to 3pm ET, where archivists and a conservator specializing in documents, books, audio/visual material, photos, and digital records (or electronic records) will be on the Smithsonian's Facebook page to answer questions about your own archival collections. Questions from our readers in the past have ranged from storing letter and diaries, to digitizing cassette tapes, to organizing digital photo archives. 

Here are the folks who will be on-hand to answer your questions:

Nora Lockshin


Nora Lockshin is Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and conserves physical objects and consults on preservation goals with archivists, collection managers, and curators at the Archives and throughout the larger Smithsonian archival and museum community. She leads the Smithsonian Institution Archives Collections Care team, and the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservationa service, research, and teaching treatment laboratory for archival collections.


Eden Orelove is a Photograph Archivist at the Smithsonian National  Anthropological Archives.  She holds an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in art history, with a specialization in the history of photography, from the George Washington University.  Her work includes processing and inventorying photos and assisting with reference.

Eden Orelove

Michael Pahn, Head Archivist, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Archive CenterMichael Pahn is Head Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center located in the museum’s Cultural Resources Center.  Michael began at NMAI in 2003 as its Media Archivist, and has overseen preservation projects funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation, Save America’s Treasures, and the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund.  His prior experiences include Save Our Sounds Project Librarian at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Librarian at The Nature Conservancy.  Michael is a member of the Society of American Archivists’ Native American Archives Roundtable Steering Committee.  He has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MLS from the University of Maryland

Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives since 2005, specializes in preserving born-digital materials that include images, audio, video,  websites, and email from across the Smithsonian. Her work involves using tools and creating methods that help digital objects remain accessible in the future.

Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig

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The Story Behind Those Jaw-Dropping Photos of the Collections at the Natural History Museum

Smithsonian Magazine

Wandering the warren of collections facilities and scientific laboratories that the public rarely sees at the National Museum of Natural History is like peeking into a reconstruction of Noah’s Ark. Filling every drawer, cabinet and shelf in sight are millions of taxidermic birds and mammals, preserved worms and fishes, skeletons and fossils, and so much more.

Seen all at once, the assemblages of creatures and objects make for a brilliant visual image. It's no surprise, then, that photographs of the museum's collections, one of the largest in the world went viral on Reddit and elsewhere. Every few years, it seems, someone else discovers the photos captured by the museum's acclaimed photographer Chip Clark, and they are seen anew by hundreds of thousands of people. The images highlight the diversity of samples as well as some of the researchers, field scientists and specialists that work with it.

The Natural History museum's collections are so large that despite the sprawling three levels of the building open to the public, less than one percent of them are on display at any given time, says Carol Butler, the assistant director of the museum’s collections. But they do form the wellspring of the scientific research that informs the exhibitions on view.

“[Clark] thought the collections were fabulous and he wanted to show the inner life of the museum and the richness of the collections,” says Butler.

The earliest photo is of the striking avians. The diversity and brilliant color of birds makes them a natural choice for that first image, Butler explains. “It’s a famous image within the Smithsonian and some science museums because it encapsulates so much information about museums and collections.”

The remaining images were staged and created over the course of nearly 20 years, says Kristen Quarles, digital collections specialist at the museum. Before his passing in 2010, Clark orchestrated the last few images of the set for use in the museum’s centennial celebration.

We talked with Butler to get more information about the pictures and the importance of the museum's collections.

How long did it take to create these pictures and what was involved in the process?

There’s one image of the bird collection. And what I remember [Clark] told me was that it took about eight hours to set up that shot. The collections are stored taxonomically according to the tree of life. But to get beautiful colors and good artistic composition, they had to move some drawers to different positions.

It took an artistic eye, a lot of patience, and probably a certain amount of flexibility to shimmy under drawers or to move sideways past pulled-out drawers. It also took an understanding of what science needed to be expressed through the photographs.

So they’re beautiful but they're also an example of museum practice, collections management and science. I think that's why they appeal to so many people.

Museums are an important resource for many scientific studies, but the public doesn’t often get to see this side of the collections. Could you tell us a little bit about how these collections are used?

Museums document what we observe about the natural world and how our connectedness with it changes through time. So in a sense, portions of the collection are a snapshot of what was living in a certain place at a certain time.

They can help us reconstruct the environment, the ecosystem, look at how animals and plants interacted and help us think about how the climate influenced the existing plants and animals.

Just as we wouldn't want to say one human being represents all of humanity, one bird doesn’t represent all of the birds of a certain species. We need lots of individual birds because part of what we are looking at in understanding a species is its’ variability.

[The collections allow] you to ask detailed questions, ask broad questions, ask comparative questions—and it’s that good science that museums are here to support. 

After the specimens are each studied and documented, why is it valuable to keep them?

The specimens are like the raw data [of a study]. If we don't keep the raw data, we can't go back and validate an interpretation or a result. An essential element of good science is to be able to reproduce a finding, an interpretation or a result.

We also use them in new ways over time. Who knew in the 1930s that you can do molecular work with collections? Who knew that we would develop the kinds of imaging and chemical analyses that we can do now? As technology changes, old collections get new uses.

What are some other reasons for keeping so many samples from each site?

You could look at our invertebrate collection—animals without backbones—and you could ask: Why do you have so many of these worms or these crustacea from the Gulf of Mexico?

In part because if they were collected at different points in time, we can learn something about how the environment is changing in the Gulf of Mexico. That information became particularly important after the Deep Horizon oil spill that occurred a couple of years ago.

So if you look at the picture and just see a whole bunch of jars of crustacea, you [are missing part of the story]. Behind every one of those specimen is a lot of data and a lot of very careful record keeping.

An old collection might [alternatively] be from a place that no longer exists. Think about islands that are at close to sea level in the Pacific. When the island goes away, [the museum’s specimen] could be the only representation we have of the biodiversity or the geology of that island. And the world is changing all around us, very rapidly.

What we have in museum collections are sometimes the only ones, like specimens of extinct species—the passenger pigeon, the dodo.

With such extensive collections, how much work goes into upkeep and maintenance?

Taking care of collections is an ongoing activity and at the Smithsonian. I am thankful that we have both trust funds and federal funds that help us with this. 

Going into the field is expensive, so taking care of what we have is a wise and prudent move. And that begins with a good building that has a sound structure and doesn't let in water, wind, pests, dirt or particulates in the air. It’s also important to have a good container and [for some specimen] the appropriate preserving liquid.  

So it's environment, it's building, it's appropriate containers. It's maintaining temperature and relative humidity and light control. Everything is in a process of decay, even rocks. And what we are trying to do is slow that down.

Scientists travel from all over to work with your specimen, does that affect preservation?

We are very careful and we're always trying to find the right balance between preservation and supporting access and use because the collections need to be used. But each time you use something, you hasten its deterioration. So we use careful handling practices, we use good environments, and we try to use the best preservation methods available.

Was the museum impacted by the National Science Foundation’s recent announcement that they are suspending funding for the Collections in Support of Biological Research?

We were not directly impacted because we are not eligible for National Science Foundation funds from that program. But caring for collections doesn't just happen at this museum—it happens at museums and collections across the country, and many organizations are probably going to be impacted by it.

If funding decreases at a university, for whatever reason, then a collection may become what we call orphaned. As a community of museums, we try to make sure that collections aren't lost to science and public education and enjoyment. Sometimes these orphans become incorporated into the collection of a different organization or museum. We all band together informally to try to make sure that collections are kept safe, secure, preserved and accessible for use.

For anyone interested in working with museum collections, what kind of degree do you need?

It's helpful to have a degree in science—biology, anthropology, geology, paleontology. But there are also ways that people can get training in a museum studies program to learn about collections management and other skills we use like creating databases or taking and processing images.

There are many ways to get a museum job, and to do the kind of work that some of the people in the images do.

Do you have any other thoughts to add about the images?

These images come from a motivation to show people, in a beautiful and interesting way, a view into the richness of the collections. These are America's collections—so we want to give people a view into the collections even though we can't invite every single person to walk through the storage areas.

We want people to see how cool it is and hopefully be inspired.

Paleoartist Brings Human Evolution to Life

Smithsonian Magazine

A smiling 3.2-million-year-old face greets visitors to the anthropology hall of the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. This reconstruction of the famous Australopithecus afarensis specimen dubbed “Lucy” stands a mere 4 feet tall, is covered in dark hair, and displays a pleasant gaze.

She’s no ordinary mannequin: Her skin looks like it could get goose bumps, and her frozen pose and expression make you wonder if she’ll start walking and talking at any moment.

This hyper-realistic depiction of Lucy comes from the Atelier Daynès studio in Paris, home of French sculptor and painter Elisabeth Daynès. Her 20-year career is a study in human evolution—in addition to Lucy, she’s recreated Sahelanthropus tchadensis, as well as Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus, and Homo floresiensis, just to name a few. Her works appear in museums across the globe, and in 2010, Daynès won the prestigious J. Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for her reconstructions.

Though she got her start in the make-up department of a theater company, Daynès had an early interest in depicting realistic facial anatomy and skin in theatrical masks. When she opened her Paris studio, she began developing relationships with scientific labs. This interest put her on the radar of the Thot Museum in Montignac, France, and in 1988, they tapped Daynès to reconstruct a mammoth and a group of people from the Magdalenian culture who lived around 11,000 years ago.

Through this initial project, Daynès found her calling. “I knew it straight away after [my] first contact with this field, when I understood how infinite [scientific] research and creativity could be,” she says.

Although her sculpting techniques continue to evolve, she still follows the same basic steps. No matter the reconstruction, Daynès always starts with a close examination of the ancient human’s skull—a defining feature for many hominid fossil groups.

Computer modeling of 18 craniometric data points across a skull specimen gives her estimates of musculature and the shape of the nose, chin, and forehead. These points guide Daynès as she molds clay to form muscles, skin and facial features across a cast of the skull. Additional bones and teeth provide more clues to body shape and stature.

Images of the skull cast of a 18,000-year-old Homo floresiensis skull with cranial measurements marked with toothpicks. Using cranial measurements, the artist adds layers of clay to form muscles and skin. (Photo: © P.Plailly/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris)

Next, Daynès makes a silicone cast of the sculpture, a skin-like canvas on which she’ll paint complexion, beauty spots and veins. For hair, she typically uses human hair in members of the Homo genus, mixing in yak hair for a thicker effect in older hominids. Dental and eye prosthetics complete the sculpture’s form.

For hair and eye color decisions, Daynès gets inspiration from the scientific literature: for example, genetic evidence suggests that Neanderthals had red hair. She also consults with scientific experts on the fossil group at each stage of the reconstruction process.

Her first collaboration with a scientist on a reconstruction came in 1998 when she teamed up with longtime friend Jean-Nöel Vignal, a paleoanthropologist and former head of the Police Forensic Research Institute in Paris, to reconstruct a Neanderthal from France’s La Ferrassie cave site. Vignal had developed the computer modeling programs used to estimate muscle and skin thickness.

Forensic sleuthing, she says, is the perfect guide: She approaches a reconstruction like a investigator profiling a murder victim. The skull, other bone remains and flora and fauna found in the excavation all help develop a picture of the individual: her age, what she ate, what hominid group she belonged to, any medical conditions she may have suffered from, and where and when she lived. More complete remains yield more accurate reconstructions. “Lucy” proved an exceptionally difficult reconstruction, spanning eight months.

Image by Photo: © P.Plailly/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. The clay model of Daynès' reconstruction of "Toumai", a Sahelanthropus tchadensis skull found in Chad in 2005. One of the earliest known human ancestors, "Toumai" lived 6 to 7 million years ago. (original image)

Image by Photo: © E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. The artist's reconstruction of Lucy, a 3.1 million-year-old female Australopithecus afarensis discovered in 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia. Because only fragments of Lucy's cranium were found, Daynès had to draw from the skull of another A. afarensis female (AL 417). (original image)

Image by Photo: © P.Plailly/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. A Homo habilis reconstruction by Daynès at the CosmoCaixa museum in Barcelona. (original image)

Image by Photo: © E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. A reconstruction of a Paranthropus boisei made directly on the cast of a 2.5 million-year-old skull, discovered in 1959 at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. (original image)

Image by Photo: © P.Plailly/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. Setting up a museum exhibit, Daynès carries a hyper realistic reconstruction of Homo georgicus. The sculpture is based on a skull (D2280) unearthed in Georgia. Scientists still debate whether Homo georgicus is a distinct species or an early form of Homo erectus. (original image)

Image by Photo: © S. Entressangle/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. A reconstruction of a male Homo erectus based on the skull Sangiran 17, the most complete Homo erectus skull found in East Asia. This hominid lived in Indonesia 1.3 to 1.0 million years ago. (original image)

Image by Photo: © E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. Daynès' reconstruction of the Sangiran 17 Homo erectus skull at an earlier stage of the artistic process. (original image)

Image by Photo: © S. Entressangle/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. Hyper-realistic reconstruction of a Homo floresiensis female based on the cast of the skull LB1, discovered in 2003 in the Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. This female stood about 1.06 meters high and lived around 18,000 years ago. (original image)

Image by Photo: © S. Entressangle/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. A reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman from the Saint Césaire site in France. (original image)

Image by Photo: © S. Entressangle/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. A reconstruction of an early modern human child for an exhibition on the culture behind the Lascaux cave paintings, which date to 17,300 years ago. (original image)

Image by Photo: © P.Plailly/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. Daynès puts the finishing touches on a reconstruction at her studio in Paris. (original image)

Image by Photo: © P.Plailly/E.Daynès – Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris. Daynès' studio in Paris is filled with casts for reconstructions. (original image)

Daynès synthesizes all of the scientific data about that point in hominid evolution into one sculpture, presenting a hypothesis of what the individual looked like. But the full reconstruction “is both an artistic and scientific challenge,” she says. “Reaching an emotional impact and transmitting life requires important artistic work unlike a conventional reconstruction that would be realized in a forensic laboratory,” explains Daynès.

There’s no scientific method to predict what anger or wonder or love might have looked like on the face of Homo erectus, for example. So for facial expressions, Daynès goes with artistic intuition, based on the hominid family, exhibition design, and any inspiration conjured by the skull itself.

She also turns to the expressions of modern humans: “I cut out different looks from recent photos in magazines that hit me and that I think can apply to a specific individual.” For example, Daynès modeled a Neanderthal man looking powerlessly at his companion, wounded in a hunting accident, for the CosmoCaixa Museum of Barcelona, on a Life magazine photo of two American soldiers in Vietnam.

Through these expressions and the realistic feel of the sculptures, Daynès also tries to dispel stereotypes of ancient hominids being violent, brutish, stupid, or inhuman. “I am proud to know that they will shake up common preconceptions,” Daynès says. “When this happens, the satisfaction is great—this is the promise that visitors will wonder about their origins.”

Daynes has several upcoming exhibitions at museums around the world. At the Montreal Science Centre, four of Daynès’ reconstructions of Magdalenian painters is on view through September 2014. In Pori, Finland, the Satakunta Museum features Daynès’ reconstructions of Neanderthals in an exhibition focused on the world they inhabited. Two additional exhibitions will launch later this year in Bordeaux, France, and in Chile.

Animal Insight

Smithsonian Magazine

Like any other close relative at the family table, chimpanzees may throw vengeful fits, but they also lend a helping hand.

A recent spate of experiments out of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has revealed that chimpanzees exhibit some of the same traits—altruism and vengeance—displayed in human society. Spiteful motivations and sophisticated social learning skills, however, appear uniquely human.

The new studies give insight into how and when such traits evolved. Most importantly they help answer the age-old question: What makes us lucky bipeds human?

"The most important way to ask these really hard questions—is human altruism unique, is human spite unique, is human fairness unique—is to ask non-human animals," says Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale University. This behavioral process of elimination defines humans as it progresses.

Since chimpanzees can't speak our language, researchers design experimental scenarios to detect the presence or absence of such traits. Recently, Felix Warneken, a developmental and comparative psychologist at Max Planck, and his colleagues conducted a series of tests to see whether chimpanzees were helpful—or, as they put it, "spontaneously altruistic."

To do this they compared the behavior of children with that of chimpanzees, one of the two closest relatives to humans (the other being bonobos). If chimpanzees engaged in helpful behavior, it would suggest that the trait went as far back as a common ancestor to chimpanzees and humans, some five to seven million years ago.

"If any animal or human passes this task, we have to assume that this organism possesses certain skills," Warneken says. "We're not just trying to attribute something to them."

In the first test, an adult human stretched for a baton that was out of its grasp but within the reach of the chimpanzee, or an 18-month-old infant. If the test subject passed the baton to the adult, the researchers considered it an act of "spontaneous altruism." In the end, chimpanzees and human infants were equally helpful, the researchers report in the July PLoS Biology. When the scientists made it a bit harder for the subjects to help, by erecting some obstacles, the results remained the same.

Image by Josefine Kalbitz. A chimpanzee named Frodo prepares to display aggression. In a recent study, Max Planck psychologist Keith Jensen and colleagues found that chimps sometimes exact revenge. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Keith Jensen. The chimpanzee Patrick observes food on a table. Given the chance, apes retaliated against food thieves by collapsing the bandit's table, ruining the stolen meal, Jensen reported recently. Despite these shows of vengeance, chimps didn't display spite in other tests. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of MPI EVAN. Esther Herrmann of Max Planck found that two-year-old children and apes performed similarly on simple math and spatial tests, but that infants outperformed apes in tests of advanced social skills. (original image)

In the final experiment, chimpanzees were given the opportunity to help out one another—and sure enough, they obliged. More often than not, the chimpanzees opened a door that allowed a fellow chimp access to some food. The results represented a breakthrough, as previous lab experiments had found the opposite. 

"It looks like, in certain situations, chimps are very helpful and as helpful as young children," says Brian Hare, a Max Planck psychologist involved in the study. "So probably whatever makes us human in terms of our helping and cooperative behavior … it didn't spring out of nowhere during human evolution."

On the opposite end of the behavioral spectrum, Keith Jensen, also at Max Planck, recently found that chimps are likely to exact revenge as well. Given the chance, chimpanzees retaliated against thieves by collapsing the bandit's table, thereby ruining the stolen meal, Jensen reports in the Aug. 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The idea is vengeance acting as a deterrent. In other words, you steal from me, I punish you enough to make you think twice before taking my banana the next time.

This type of vengeance, even if it takes the ugly form of punishment, is healthy in that it discourages freeloaders. So even if vengeance is considered bad, it can often serve the greater good.

Spite, however, doesn't appear to have any such obvious perks, which might explain why chimpanzees didn't exhibit it in Jensen's experiments. When an adult person took food away from one chimpanzee and gave it to another, the first chimpanzee didn't collapse the second chimpanzee's table, the researchers found.

"I'm not very surprised that we don't see a lot of spiteful behavior in the chimps," says Joan Silk, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who was not affiliated with the study. "In some sense it's a little bit irrational, because you hurt yourself to hurt someone else more."

Still if the chimpanzees don't display spite, then why do humans? Spite, which Jensen describes as "altruism's evil twin," might help motivate behaviors related to a sense of fairness, he says. "In the absence of punishment, at least in studies that have been done on human adults, cooperation falls apart, because it only takes a few selfish individuals … to ruin everything for everybody," Jensen says. "But if you give people the opportunity to punish free riders, they stop cheating."

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Other differences between human and chimpanzee behavior have been teased apart by testing infants, chimpanzees and orangutans in identical conditions. Esther Herrmann of Max Planck recently found that apes and two-and-a-half-year-old children performed similarly on tasks that tested their understanding of the physical world, such as space and quantities.

For example, chimpanzees were better than infants at detecting added quantities of food or toys, a rudimentary math skill. Their spatial relationships were similarly developed; both extracted food and toys from difficult places.

However, the similarities in their cognitive skills broke down when it came to Herrmann's social learning tests, she reports in the Sept. 7 issue of Science. Herrmann says these social cognition skills, which people display more often than chimpanzees, are the same skills that give us the leg up to perpetuate our culture and society.

"Human children have much more sophisticated skills dealing with the social world like dealing with imitating another's solution to a problem, communicating non-verbally and reading the intentions [of] others," Herrmann says. "These skills enable them to participate in the cultural world, and by doing so children become members of this cultural world."

Still, such studies cannot replicate one major linchpin of our evolutionary story, even if they can guess at it. For traits to evolve, they must be inheritable, and for them to persist, they must bestow reproductive success or increased survival to the individual.

This is why finding altruism displayed by chimps is a bit puzzling. After all, how could sacrificing your own life for that of an unrelated individual (the most extreme form of altruism) be a trait that would survive through the ages? In Santos' opinion, figuring out whether the chimpanzee or human is getting any reproductive benefit from its actions is the harder question.

"It really involves measuring and comparing reproductive fitness," she says. "That's going to be one of the harder questions from an evolutionary point of view, about why these animals might have these abilities and why they might not."

Anne Casselman is a science writer based in Vancouver, Canada.

To Discover What Life Was Like in 19th Century D.C., a Smithsonian Scientist Investigates a Tomb

Smithsonian Magazine

After more than 150 years of time, weather and even vandals, the vault holding the remains of a once-prominent Washington family was a mess. Located in D.C.'s Historic Congressional Cemetery, the Causten Vault—a semi-underground, domed-chamber—was structurally in peril.

“All the mortar had fallen away from the bricks [and] the barrel roof had begun to collapse,” says the cemetery’s president, Paul Williams.

The inside of the tomb had fared even worse. The wooden shelves that held the caskets of nearly two dozen individuals had disintegrated. Bones were exposed. Restoring the vault without disturbing the remains would be impossible. Workers would step on them, and the bones would be exposed to the elements.

So, in 2009, the cemetery called on forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the National Museum of Natural History for help. And today, after years of work to sort and catalogue the remains, as well as research the family’s history, the scientist and his colleagues finally returned the bones to the cemetery, where the vault has been restored. The work, Owsley says, not only helps the cemetery and the living descendants of those buried in the tomb, but also aids in his efforts to document life in the Chesapeake region over the last 400 years.

Congressional Cemetery, located about a-mile-and-a-half east of the U.S. Capitol in southeast Washington, D.C., is a somewhat quirky spot with a long history. Founded in 1807, the cemetery is not owned by the government, though it gets its name from having served as a resting place for many legislators and government officials. That includes 16 senators, 68 representatives and Vice President Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Such a spot was needed early on in American history because it was not possible to transport bodies of the deceased long distances in the hot summer months.

The 35-acre cemetery is now home to not just long-dead legislators (since 1878, most have chosen to be buried closer to home) but more than 65,000 burials, and it is still an active cemetery. To be buried there, “you just have to be dead,” notes the Congressional Cemetery website.

Such frank language reflects the respective, but somewhat irreverent, ways of the cemetery. About one-quarter of the site’s operating funds, for instance, come from a unique source: a dogwalking program in which paying members are allowed to use the grounds as a leash-free dog park. Adding to its eccentricity, past events held there have included a birthday party for John Phillip Sousa—the march composer who directed the U.S. Marine Band in the late 1800s—and a “Ghosts and Goblets” Halloween-themed fundraiser.

Tourists and locals alike can be found wandering the cemetery, visiting the graves of former Washingtonians such as Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Belva Ann Lockwood, the first female attorney allowed before the U.S. Supreme Court. More recent burials include Warren M. Robbins, who established the National Museum of African Art.

In recent years, the cemetery has been working to conserve and restore the grounds, which fell into disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s. Fractured and fallen gravestones can still be found across the site, though the cemetery has been working to upright and pin the stones so they are not easily knocked over again. Many of the original vaults, which hold the remains of formerly prominent Washington families, had begun to disintegrate, and some disappeared entirely. “Two-hundred and seven years later, [the site] will probably show its wear and tear,” notes Williams.

Owsley and the cemetery had an established relationship when they called him in 2009. The bone expert had matched up a skull found in an old tin box with the remains of cemetery resident William Wirt, a former U.S. attorney general and a prosecutor in the treason trial of Aaron Burr, for example. Owsley and other Smithsonian researchers participated in the excavation of the tomb of General Alexander Macomb, a hero of the War of 1812. And they had been called in to deal with the remains found in other crumbling vaults. “This is a public service,” Owsley says.

Image by Chip Clark, National Museum of Natural History. In 2009, Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley excavated the 1835 Causten Vault where the ancestors of a prominent Washington, D.C. family were laid to rest. Today, the vault was restored and the family members returned to their resting place. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark, National Museum of Natural History. Inside the semi-subterranean 19th-century burial vault, conditions had deteriorated. The wooden shelves that held the caskets of nearly two dozen individuals had disintegrated. Bones were exposed. (original image)

Image by James Di Loreto, Smithsonian. A silver-plated nameplate was recovered. It once adorned the casket of 4-year-old Josephine Shriver, who died from unknown causes in 1847. (original image)

Image by Laurie Burgess, Smithsonian. Researchers sifted through the contents of the Causten Vault, searching for skeletal remains and artifacts such as coffin hardware and other personal belongings. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Congressional Cemetery. Researchers carefully assemble on the lawn of Congressional Cemetery some of the materials, including several coffins, pulled from the Causten Vault. (original image)

Image by Laurie Burgess, Smithsonian. Among the finds from the Causten Vault, where 16 individuals were buried, was a set of rosary beads. (original image)

The Causten Vault held the remains of members of the Causten family, which in the 19th century was led by James Causten, an international lawyer and consul to the nations of Chile and Ecuador. Causten had the vault built in 1835, after the death of his first son, and it would eventually hold the remains of 22 members of the extended Causten family, including 4-year-old Josephine Shriver, whose mother, Henrietta Jane Causten, had married Joseph Shriver. (The Shriver family rose to prominence in the 20th century when Eunice Kennedy, younger sister of President John F. Kennedy, married Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr.)

Owsley and his colleagues began by removing all the remains from the Causten Vault, in what Owsley calls an “indoor archaeological investigation.” As the planking and caskets disintegrated over time, the remains pancaked. Owsley’s team sorted through each layer and then removed the remains to his laboratory  back at the museum. (They found evidence the tomb had been vandalized at one time—one man buried there is now missing his cranium.)

There, Owsley continued sorting and matching bones. From the bones, he could determine the gender and approximate age of the individual. The shape of the metal casket handles helped to narrow when that person was buried—the style of the hardware is often distinctive to a time period, Owsley says. Meanwhile, Deborah Hull-Walski, a collections manager in the museum’s anthropology department, was putting together a complete genealogy of the family.

The team eventually determined that the tomb held the remains of 16 people, including 13 skeletons and three still preserved in their coffins. The bodies of several individuals—those whose coffins had sat near the bottom of the vault—had completely disintegrated. “That’s not unique to this tomb,” Owsley notes. In the damp conditions found at the lower levels, a mineral called brushite begins to form and breaks up the bones.

Owsley continued sorting and identifying bones, matching them with records and refining his information, repeating the process three times to be sure that he could match the correct name with each set of remains. The now-separated skeletons were finally carefully packed into white plastic bins, each labeled with the person’s name. The cemetery will transfer the remains to a coffin before they are reinterred within the vault.

Matching Owsley’s findings with Hull-Walski’s genealogical research, the family now has a rich, if somewhat tragic, history. (The Causten’s living family members will receive a copy of the research later this summer.) Though James Hyman Causten Sr. lived a long life, dying in his 80s of a heart attack, “his kids were not so lucky,” Owsley notes. The Carvallo branch of the family, for example, lost five of six children. Two small children buried in the vault, aged three and seven months, died of dysentery.

Those who were buried in the vault weren’t its only residents, it turns out. Hull-Walski’s research also revealed that the Causten Vault had eight temporary burials during its time, including two former first ladies. One of these was Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison whose niece, Annie Payne, married into the Causten family. Dolley died in 1849 and was first interred in Congressional Cemetery’s Public Vault for two years. Annie Payne Causten then moved the former first lady’s remains across the lane to the Causten Vault. There her casket stayed until 1858, when Dolley Madison was finally laid to rest next to her husband in the Madison family cemetery on the grounds of the Montpelier in Virginia.

Madison was briefly joined in the Causten Vault by Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams, after she died in May 1852. Her body was then removed to the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, where she is entombed with her husband.

Remains like those found in the Causten Vault have proven invaluable for Owsley’s research, he says. By studying bones left behind after death, he can determine an individuals, age, gender, physical size and dental health—even whether they had infections, arthritis or some type of trauma. Bone chemistry can tell him about exposure to toxic metals like lead. But, he says, “context is crucial,” and it’s rare to have so much additional information about how people lived and died long ago.

Through the remains of people long dead, Owsley is hoping to paint a picture of life in the Chesapeake area over the last 400 years. He has concentrated on the 17th century—reconstructing life in Jamestown, Virginia, for instance—but has begun to look farther afield, at individuals in Ghana and England, for example. He hopes to be able to compare rich and poor, urban and rural, slave and white, “to look at this process of becoming American,” he says.

The Causten Vault is one piece of that grander puzzle. And, Owsley says, “it enhances what we can do with the [remains] where we don’t have that record.”

The Fascinating Afterlife of Peru's Mummies

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1533 the first Spaniards to reach Cusco, capital of the sprawling Inca Empire, discovered temples covered with gold plates, altars and fountains similarly glimmering and architecture whose stonework rivaled or surpassed anything comparable in Europe. But the greatest surprise came when two soldiers entered one well-constructed palace of a dead emperor and found that he and his deceased wife were—in the eyes of the Inca—still alive. 

In the palace’s inner sanctum they found an old woman wearing a gold mask, waving a fan to keep flies off the immobile pair. The couple were no longer breathing but sat upright, perfectly mummified. They and their attendants wanted for nothing: Family members interpreted their wishes and benefited from the wealth the dead still owned. During holy festivals the dead ancestors were
paraded behind the living emperor, their history and achievements adding to those of the living. 

Of this, the Spaniards would learn later. At the time, the soldiers deferred to the mummies’ power even as they defied it. The Spaniards took all the gold from the dead couple in front of them but incongruously, in a sign of respect, agreed to take their shoes off before doing so. Such was the power that the ancient Andean dead wielded over the living, even when the Spaniards would later deny—nervously—their continuing vitality. And if measured in the true wealth the mummies still possessed—which was the people they sustained and who looked up to them—the Inca emperors achieved more in death than most of us do in a lifetime.

In that, the Inca were hardly alone. In the Andes, mummification was a way of preserving power, not memorializing it. As the Spanish discovered, the western spine of South America might be the Earth’s largest natural laboratory for making mummies. The sands of its bone-dry coast, stretching from Peru down to northern Chile, first made them naturally. Then, 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro people learned to mummify their dead—2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians. Archaeologists now think that artificial mummification transformed loved ones into representatives of the community—ambassadors to the natural world who ensured the fertility of their descendants and their resources. It also may have been a way of understanding and ritualizing the everyday experience of encountering the dead, preserved and exposed by the passage of time in desert sands, on cold, dry peaks and across high plains. By the time Inca expansion began in the 1200s, highland Andean peoples were placing their ancestors in caves or similarly accessible burial towers—chullpas, whose location marked resources and divided territory. Whether permanently buried or temporarily interred, sometimes to be taken out and danced with, the mummies remained in an important way alive: like a dry seed, ready to bloom. Not dead but slowed, they brimmed with extraordinary invisible strength.

The oldest among them could also become huacas, holy things. The Inca Empire was able to spread as quickly as it did in part because of its fluency with this shared Andean idiom of divine ancestry. The Inca would honor—and control—their subjects’ most revered mummified dead by taking them to Cusco and worshipping them there. In exchange, subject lords were called upon to recognize that the Inca, as children of the sun, were the ancestors of all humanity; they were sometimes enjoined to offer their own sons and daughters to the empire, to be pampered, taught and then sacrificed and planted on sacred mountaintops, where they themselves were naturally preserved. 

The belief that the Inca emperor was still socially alive, and retained his or her possessions, also encouraged the empire’s spread across the Andes. When an Inca emperor died and was mummified—via the removal of organs, embalming and freeze-drying of the flesh—his heir might take on the imperial role but not his father’s possessions, which the mummy and his other children required for their sustenance. Thus, each Inca emperor went farther and farther afield to amass the glory that would redound upon his ancestral line, or panaca: venturing down to the coast, or into the jungle, to collect the fantastic gold, silver, shells, feathers and other sumptuous goods that the afterlife required. 

New Inca could not become emperors, however, unless they had the buy-in of Cusco’s older panacas, which similarly approved marriages and alliances on behalf of their own mummified founding ancestors. When the Spanish met the Inca Atahualpa in 1532, his empire stretched from present-day Bolivia and Chile as far north as Colombia, but conflict between Atahualpa and Cusco’s more powerful panacas left the empire open to conquest. After a period of wary cohabitation with the Spaniards in Cusco, the Inca nobles hid their mummies from the conquistadors—possibly after Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, looted one of the most august, Viracocha, and set him on fire. Viracocha’s panaca collected his ashes, which were still considered animate, and continued to venerate them in private, as did the other families with their own mummies. 

Spanish officials eventually realized the anti-colonial power the Inca dead embodied, and confiscated them in 1559. But even then, some Spaniards respected their aura. “They were carried wrapped in white sheets,” wrote El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spaniard and relative of an Inca emperor, “and the Indians knelt in the streets and squares, and bowed with tears and groans as they passed. Many Spaniards took off their caps, since they were royal bodies, and the Indians were more grateful than they could express for this attention.” Those Inca mummies that were still intact, which hadn’t been buried in Cusco’s churches despite their pagan status—a measure of Spanish respect in itself—were then carried down to Lima, where they were installed in one of the Spanish capital’s early hospitals, possibly to place them out of view of the crown’s Indian subjects. 

This early European encounter with the Andean afterlife left an extraordinary mark on what would later become anthropology and archaeology. Although the Spaniards attempted to halt the veneration of the more locally preserved dead with extirpating fire, they also captured detailed knowledge about the lives and beliefs of Andean peoples. The tenure of the mummies in Lima convinced the Spanish that they were not just preserved but embalmed—a complex process, worthy of respect for its use of valuable materia medica

By the early 17th century, that reputation had begun to travel. El Inca Garcilaso had speculated how his Inca ancestors’ bodies were preserved, and selections of his chronicle, available in English by 1625, helped established the Inca as champion embalmers. In the early 18th century, the English conjectured that the Inca dead were better preserved than the Egyptian pharaohs. By then, Spanish scholars were digging up and describing the less elite dead in the name of antiquarian research, yet always with reference to perfect Inca mummies that had vanished at the hands of the colonial invaders. Peruvian artists painted watercolors of excavated tombs in which the “ancient Peruvians” looked as if they were only sleeping.

The surviving imperial Inca mummies had by then disappeared, likely having been buried in the hospital where they were stored. In the 19th century it was occasionally rumored that one or more had been found, prompting calls for statues in their honor. Excavations in the 1930s turned up crypts and colonial remains. In the early 2000s a team led by Teodoro Hampe Martínez, Brian S. Bauer and Antonio Coello Rodríguez searched for the patio or corral where the mummies were viewed. They found archaeological remains pointing to the long indigenous occupation of Lima before it was Spanish, as well as colonial-era ceramics, animal and vegetal traces that helped explain changes in diet, and a curious vaulted structure that could have been a crypt. The mummies themselves remain elusive. 

Although the material wealth of the Inca mummies was melted down long ago, their inheritance has become the concerted research of sympathetic archaeologists, inspired by their story. After Peru’s independence was declared in 1821, the country’s first National Museum was founded in the former Chapel of the Inquisition; where inquisitors and scribes once sat, four pre-colonial mummies were set in place to observe the visitors who came to contemplate the Andean past. Scholars domestic and international began collecting the Peruvian dead during the 19th century, such that Andean mummies became a fixture of the many new natural history and anthropology museums, including the Smithsonian. In the 1920s, the indigenous Peruvian and Harvard-trained archaeologist Julio C. Tello discovered 429 mummy bundles belonging to the Paracas culture on Peru’s southern coast; several later traveled to North America and Spain. They were the ancestors of “Juanita,” the famously well-preserved girl sacrificed by the Inca on Mount Ampato high in the Andes, who toured the United States and Japan after her discovery in 1995.

Watch this video in the original article

There is still much that Peru’s dead can teach us. From 1999 to 2001, archaeologists led by Peru’s Guillermo Cock rescued mummies and remains from an Inca cemetery threatened by Lima’s urban development. They have used them to assess the health of indigenous Peruvians before and after the Inca conquest. Peruvian skulls at the Smithsonian are similarly studied to understand societal conditions and—in the case of trepanation, an ancient cranial surgery—healing. Juanita remains on view in the Peruvian city of Arequipa. The display challenges viewers to understand the state religion that required her sacrifice to the sun but also the vital afterlife her people may have imagined for her, bringing fertility to the empire.

The resources devoted to the preservation of Juanita and her cousins suggest that mummies still draw us close in distinct ways. Tello, now one of Peru’s great cultural heroes, treated the Paracas mummies he discovered as common ancestors—a Peruvian panaca reborn. At the museum he founded, and where he is buried, specialists took great pains to document and display mummy bundles they pulled from the sand, presenting them not as specimens but as individuals, wrapped in their community’s finest textiles. 

Once emperors—of land, of people, of their families—they are now emissaries from a hemisphere filled with indigenous societies that preceded modern America by millennia and whose present-day heirs remain vital and mobile. Two years after Tello’s death in 1947, one of the mummies he collected traveled to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for a public unraveling, before being returned to Peru. A newspaper account reported then that customs officials—like the first Spaniards in Cusco—grappled with how to register an ancient visitor who in his afterlife was probably traveling farther than they ever would. They finally settled on “an immigrant—3,000 years old.” 

A Jamestown Skeleton is Unearthed, but Only Time—and Science—will Reveal His True Identity

Smithsonian Magazine

Dead men tell no tales—but a skeleton in a church gravesite has given Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists quite the story.

This week, Rediscovery scientists uncovered new evidence, including a skull and teeth, of a skeleton that may belong to Sir George Yeardley in the remains of a church in Jamestown, Virginia. Yeardley, the colonial governor who presided over the first representative assembly in the Western hemisphere, was also one of America’s first slaveholders.

This assembly, which took place in 1619, was a momentous first step in ushering in a new age of colonial rule, though it would be decades before modern democracy would be established in the region. Still, many scholars hail Yeardley for his role in championing the participation of citizens in their own government. Yeardley died at Jamestown in 1627 at the age of 39, and was likely honored with a grand commemoration at the time of his passing.

Since 1994, scientists have been excavating Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America, where three ships first docked in April of 1607. A project originally pioneered by archaeologist Bill Kelso, Jamestown Rediscovery has already unearthed two million artifacts, painting an increasingly intricate portrait of this cornerstone of American history—but the discovery of this early American may be their most groundbreaking yet.

According to David Givens, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery, Yeardley’s identity is far from definitive and confirmation awaits further analyses, including DNA sequencing. "We believe this person to be Sir George Yeardley, “ says Givens. “Now we’re going to let science tell us if we’re right or wrong."

Ground-penetrating radar (top) reveals a high-resolution image of a skeleton to archaeologists before they broke ground to capture an actual photo (bottom). (David Givens)

The skeleton in question appears to be of the right age, and is largely intact, enabling estimates of several of the body’s original features. Additionally, the specimen was unearthed from a grave positioned in a place reserved for only those of high status: in the central aisle, intersecting with what colonists referred to as the “quire” (choir) of what was once the town’s second church, a wooden structure erected in 1617. Additionally, a large tombstone commemorating a knighthood—another mark of prestige bequeathed on Yeardley—once occupied the same church that now bears Yeardley’s supposed remains, and was believed to have sealed his grave. The grave appears to be aligned with the church’s foundations and is devoid of any deconstruction rubble, tentatively indicating that it was dug before the church was dismantled in 1639, 12 years after Yeardley’s death.

Notably, this is the first time that high-frequency ground-penetrating radar has been used in the identification of archaeological skeletal remains. The technique pulses radar deep into the soil and sends back signals of remains beneath the surface, enabling researchers to visualize the evidence without disturbing the artifacts. Such a precaution not only gives a complete picture of a pristinely preserved specimen, but also informs the excavation strategy.

“When we’re digging an archaeological site, we’re going in blind,” explains Peter Leach, an archaeologist at Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc. who collaborated on the project. “Excavation is destructive. . . so being able to look through the soil is powerful.”

Typically, only lower-frequency pulses have been used at previous sites, as these tend to penetrate deeper into the earth. However, the further down the signals go, the poorer the resolution is. High-frequency versions, which have, up until this point, been used almost exclusively to detect rebar and wiring in slabs of concrete during deconstruction and remodeling, were considered impractical for archeological purposes: they had the precision, but not the depth.

But Leach was willing to take that gamble. In the hunt for a gravesite, shallow treasure was a given—and the perfect opportunity to see if high-frequency ground-penetrating radar could visualize bones. Leach encouraged Givens to stop digging just above the lid of a coffin, then give Leach a call.

And hit pay dirt they did.

“The radar was so detailed that when we dug [the skeleton] up, it was like, ‘That’s exactly what we were seeing,” says Givens.

Excavation revealed well-preserved arms, legs and ribs, and even a large number of teeth. For a while, the head was MIA—but then the scientists remembered an orphan skull that had been mysteriously unearthed from a nearby grave the previous year. Perhaps it belonged to their mystery man, and had simply been dislodged by a second burial. They’d be able to potentially confirm a match with DNA analysis—but in the meantime, there was a faster, albeit messier way to tell: they had a jaw bone and a handful of loose teeth—did the keys fit the lock?

They did. This confirmation was—literally—the crowning jewel on their find. They had a head—one that could be scanned to generate a 3D reconstruction of the body’s original face. But the vast majority of the work is yet to come: archaeology is arduous and delicate, far more than a group of researchers playing around in dirt.

“We’re trying to reconstruct a jigsaw puzzle, but sometimes someone comes in and kicks the table,” says Leach.

A skeleton is revealed in the excavation of a prestigious church burial at Jamestown, Virginia. (Smithsonian Channel)

Doug Owsley, lead forensic anthropologist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, will head the analysis of the skeletal remains back in Washington, D.C. Since 1996, Owsley has been “reading” human remains at Jamestown—over half of his 40-year career in physical anthropology. “We’re studying this whole process of becoming American through a record written in the bones,” he says.

For him, the excavation goes far beyond what first meets the eye: Owsley notes that each skeleton emerges with a personal history that dictates sex, age, health, lifestyle, ancestry and more. The teeth alone are a wellspring of information: cavities betray grain or sugar consumption, while abscesses shed light on painful illnesses.

Advances in chemical testing will also enable the researchers to learn the skeleton’s diet and travel history. Radiocarbon dating, for instance, can approximately bracket when the body was buried. The bones in our bodies have different regenerative capacities: teeth, for instance, stop growing in early childhood, and make a good snapshot of what you were eating and drinking in youth. Femurs, on the other hand, might reveal the last ten or 15 years of growth; ribs, the last two to five. And so, by pulling samples from all over this skeleton’s body, archaeologists can reconstruct an incredibly accurate life history.

Nitrogen in the bones, for instance, could reveal how much meat was in this man’s diet, which might hint at his social status (Yeardley, while not born noble, quickly rose to prominence in Jamestown). Similarly, different species of oxygen molecules can be matched to country-specific rainwater. If the bones are Yeardley’s, one might expect a layering of oxygen flavors: one for his early years in England, overlaid by a stripe indicative of the Americas. Finally, different types of carbon molecules exist in plants native to either England or the Americas: Corn, a true American classic, would not be expected to appear in the teeth—which preserve only our earliest eating habits—of a native Englishman, but would rear its head in the legs and ribs if he traveled to America.

But the lynchpin of this investigation is perhaps the most elusive puzzle piece of all. Over the next six to eight months, geneticist and archaeologist Turi King of the University of Leicester will do some excavating of her own—but this time, entirely above ground. Her laboratory has already played an instrumental role in identifying the remains of Richard III, and many of the same techniques will be deployed anew in the search for Yeardley.

To confirm his identity, King will need to carefully extract DNA from bits of bone, which involves crushing samples to liberate the necessary molecules. She’ll then compare the fragments she isolates to DNA from known living descendants of Yeardley—but not just any relative will do. King is searching for mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosomes in all-female or all-male lineages, respectively, from Yeardley’s line. These genetic traits are passed through only one sex or the other, putting tough constraints on her search. And while sampling DNA from a living person in modern times has become a breeze, “ancient DNA is a different kettle of fish,” King says. “It tends to be very damaged.” And as her team works, King must take every precaution against contaminating the 400-year-old skeleton’s DNA—a costly mistake that could be as simple as breathing on or brushing up against the samples.

The team hopes to have definitive findings by mid-2019, when they will be profiled by the Smithsonian Channel as a part of its series “American Hidden Stories.” Next year also marks the 400th anniversary of Yeardley’s two legacies as an assembly leader and as a slaveholder. The clash of these two hallmarks of American history further illuminate a period of immense sociopolitical turmoil: in its early years, Jamestown survived several sieges by the region’s natives, an abandonment by leadership, and famines that drove its residents to occasional cannibalism.

Jamestown Rediscovery weds a team of dizzying expertise from around the world, assembling support from the Skeletal Biology Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; specialists in ground penetrating radar from Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc.; King’s lab at the University of Leicester; dental specialists Joshua Cohen of Virginia Commonwealth University and Martin Levin of the University of Pennsylvania; and many others.

“One of the things that excites me the most, as an archaeologist, is to work with a team of world class archaeologists, and to experience the camaraderie and collaborations,” says Leach. “It’s really a dream come true.”

In the months ahead, the team will continue to gather evidence for (or perhaps against) the identification of Sir George Yeardley in these remains. But regardless of the skeleton’s identity, this particular investigation is only a piece of the culmination of decades of work in the nation’s first settlement. Yeardley or not Yeardley, this individual will weave a thread to the ever-growing tapestry of Jamestown’s colorful history—and far more remains to be discovered.

“And if it’s not [Yeardley],” says Givens, “then who got such a prominent burial in the church?”

Why Archaeologists Are Intentionally Setting Early American Sites on Fire

Smithsonian Magazine

On a sunny day this spring Josh Chase, an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, stood on the bluff above Montana’s Milk River and watched as flames raced through one of the most unique archaeological sites on the northern Plains. But instead of worrying about the fate of smoldering teepee rings or stone tools, Chase was excited. He had planned the controlled burn, and even the firefighters on scene could see the fire instantly uncovering a rich record of the bison hunters who lived there 700 to 1,000 years ago.

By burning the 600-acre stretch of grassland in northeastern Montana named after one-time landowner Henry SmithChase gained perspective that would have been nearly impossible to achieve with traditional archaeological techniques. A research aircraft later flew over to image the freshly exposed artifacts, including the remains of rock structures used to corral and kill bison, stone vision quest structures where people fasted and prayed and stones arranged in human and animal shapes.

“Before the fire, if we were looking at the site through a door, we were just looking through the peephole,” says Chase. “Now that we’ve burned it and recorded it, we’ve opened the door so we can see everything there.”

As far as Chase knows, it’s the first time an archaeologist has intentionally set a cultural site ablaze. It’s much more common for archaeologists in the Western U.S. to worry about wildfires--or fire-fighting efforts--damaging a site. But since grasslands are adapted to natural fire cycles, Chase had a rare opportunity to use fire as an archaeological tool. It's a tool that has had surprisingly successful results thus far. Chase is still analyzing the flight data from this year’s 400-acre burn, but an initial burn last spring revealed 2,400 new stone features – about one every three to five feet. 

When Chase began working on the Henry Smith site in 2010 realized it was going to be too large to map by hand. Plus, vegetation obscured much of it. He knew grass fires to be a natural part of the plains ecosystem, and most of the artifacts there are durable quartzite stones. To Chase, a former wildland firefighter, a controlled burn seemed like a sensible way to expose any artifacts on the surface without harming them.

Since much of the data about fire’s impacts on archaeological sites comes from studying high-intensity forest fires, Chase wanted to be sure that a low-intensity grass fire wouldn’t harm the archaeological record, especially fragile animal bones. So for last year's 300-acre burn, Chase selected a location with only stone artifacts. Within that burn, a crew from the U.S Forest Service's Missoula Fire Science Laboratory fitted mock stone and bone artifacts with heat sensors and burned test plots in different vegetation types. The fire raced over them for only 30 seconds and left the artifacts unscathed. That gave him confidence that this year’s blaze wouldn’t harm the sensitive bison bone fragments in the Henry Smith site.

Archaeologists have known about the existence of a buffalo kill site there since the 1930s. Arrowheads found at Henry Smith identify it as part of the Avonlea Period, when northern Plains bison hunters first started using bows and arrows. But no one studied it systematically until the 1980s, when a researcher identified two spiritually significant stone effigies, and excavated a buffalo jump. To harvest bison, hunting groups built miles-long lines of rock piles, called drivelines. The drivelines helped the hunters herd the running bison towards a rocky bluff where the animals “jumped” into a ravine by tripping and stumbling.

Henry Smith’s overwhelming density of features including vision quest sites, four more effigies and additional drive lines didn’t come into focus until last year’s test burn. This year’s burn revealed stone tools and teepee rings indicating the site was used for day-to-day living in addition to spiritual and hunting purposes. Chase says that it’s very unusual to find all of those features in one location.

While the site is within the traditional territories of multiple American Indian tribes, archaeologists and tribal members have not yet linked it to a specific one, and the area is no longer used by native groups. Chase notififed 64 tribes throughout the U.S. before the burn and had face-to-face meetings with Montana tribes to gather feedback on the burn technique. No one had a problem with it, according to Chase.

This summer, Chase will have more meetings with the region's tribes to get their perspectives on interpreting the site. He'll also be be doing fieldwork to confirm that his is correctly interpreting the aerial images and he’s now developing hypotheses about the Henry Smith site’s significance.

“I would speculate that it probably started as a very good place to get and process bison, and due to that fact it turned into a spiritual place,” he says. “Now we’re looking at that snapshot in time with all those features from all those years of activity laying on top of one another.”

Image by Great Falls Tribune/Rion Sanders. Stones arranged in a circle form a vision quest site, a place where people fasted and prayed. Until a controlled burn swept the area, this site had been hidden by vegetation for hundreds of years. (original image)

Image by Great Falls Tribune/Rion Sanders. Bison teeth found at the foot of a buffalo jump, a site where Native Americans herded bison into a ravine. (original image)

Image by Great Falls Tribune/Rion Sanders. Stone tools are part of the features at an archeological site near Malta, in northeastern Montana. (original image)

Fire has also influenced how Larry Todd, an emeritus anthropology professor at the Colorado State University, interpreted the archaeology of Wyoming’s wilderness. Instead of excavating deep into a small area, he surveys the surface for artifacts that provide a big-picture view while making minimal impact on the land. Todd had spent five years been mapping a site in the Absaroka Mountains just southeast of Yellowstone National Park when the Little Venus wildfire burned through in 2006. In the aftermath, he realized that he had been studying a severely watered down version of the archaeological record.

The fire increased the artifacts visible on the surface by 1,600 percent. The vegetation had also hid high-quality artifacts. There were many more bone fragments, fire pits, trade beads and ceramic figurines – the kinds of objects that contain a lot of information for archaeologists.  

That changed Todd’s interpretation of the site. He now thinks that Native Americans used Wyoming’s mountains much more intensively and for more of the year than his earlier work showed. “The most amazing thing that the fire has exposed is our ignorance,” he says.

For Todd though, the increased knowledge comes with a cost. Fires expose artifacts to looting, erosion, weathering, and the hooves of free-ranging cattle that “take that beautiful crisp picture of what life was like in the past and make it look like it went through a Cuisinart.”

It pains Todd that he can’t get to every site in time. “When a fire burns through an area, and they are literally some of the most spectacular archeological sites you have ever seen, it’s a real mix of emotion,” he says. “You’re sort of saying, ‘Oh my God this is going be gone, and I don’t have the time, and I don’t have the people, and I don’t have the funding to record it properly.’ It’s thrilling, but depressing at the same time.”

Chase avoided those tradeoffs at Henry Smith because many of its artifacts aren’t fire-sensitive, the site is protected from looters by the private ranches surrounding it, and he had the luxury of planning for a controlled burn. His work will be important to understanding not only the people who lived and hunted there, but also how to protect and study grassland cultural sites after future wildfires or prescribed burns.  

For a test burn in 2015, BLM architects placed temperature sensors within mock cultural sites. (Bureau of Land Management)

Ana Steffen, an archaeologist working at New Mexico’s Valles Caldera National Preserve, has seen some of the worst of what fire can do. In 2011, the Las Conchas fire burned 156,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains and set a new record for the state’s largest fire at the time. The fast-moving conflagration spread at the rate of about two football fields per second, denuding much of the forest.

“What we realized was Las Conchas the worst-case scenario by every measure for archaeology,” says Steffen. “Not only did it burn a huge area, it burned large areas really, really badly with severe direct effects, and with terrible indirect effects later on.”

In the end, the Las Conchas fire affected more than 2,500 archaeological sites. After withstanding centuries of more moderate fires, Ancestral Puebloan dwellings crumbled, pottery disintegrated, and flint and obsidian artifacts shattered. Then flash floods ripped through the bare soils, carrying away 25-acre obsidian quarries used by Archaic period hunter-gatherers.

Steffen is now part of a team trying to make the most out of the Las Conchas fire. Researchers are doing controlled lab experiments to model how archaeological materials respond to a variety of fire conditions. That will help archaeologists and fire managers figure out when it’s safe to do prescribed burns, and how to protect features from wildfire. It will also help archaeologists understand past fire severity when they are looking at a site.

A history of suppressing low-intensity wildfires helped contributed to the Las Conchas fire’s severity, so Steffen applauds using prescribed fire as an archaeological tool. “Being able to return fire to the landscape is a wonderful way of humans interacting with the environment,” she says. “I find it to be very, very healthy. So mobilizing a case study such as this one where you can get archaeologists out on the landscape, where you can see what’s happening after the fire, that’s just smart science.”

There's still a lot to learn by studying how fires affect cultural sites, and researchers have ample opportunity to do that work. For example, on the Shoshone National Forest where Todd works, fires have been getting larger and more frequent over the last 20 years. During one field season the ashes of an active wildfire fell on him as he examined the aftermath of an old one. “There’s a whole suite of really complex interactions going on that are probably going make fire archaeology something we’re going to see more of in the future,” he says.

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets

Smithsonian Magazine

In the summer of 1996, two college students in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled on a human skull while wading in the shallows along the Columbia River. They called the police. The police brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, and he in turn contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and, in the dying light of evening, plucked almost an entire skeleton from the mud and sand. They carried the bones back to Chatters’ lab and spread them out on a table.

The skull, while clearly old, did not look Native American. At first glance, Chatters thought it might belong to an early pioneer or trapper. But the teeth were cavity-free (signaling a diet low in sugar and starch) and worn down to the roots—a combination characteristic of prehistoric teeth. Chatters then noted something embedded in the hipbone. It proved to be a stone spearpoint, which seemed to clinch that the remains were prehistoric. He sent a bone sample off for carbon dating. The results: It was more than 9,000 years old.

Thus began the saga of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas and an object of deep fascination from the moment it was discovered. It is among the most contested set of remains on the continents as well. Now, though, after two decades, the dappled, pale brown bones are at last about to come into sharp focus, thanks to a long-awaited, monumental scientific publication next month co-edited by the physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution. No fewer than 48 authors and another 17 researchers, photographers and editors contributed to the 680-page Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton (Texas A&M University Press), the most complete analysis of a Paleo-American skeleton ever done.

The book recounts the history of discovery, presents a complete inventory of the bones and explores every angle of what they may reveal. Three chapters are devoted to the teeth alone, and another to green stains thought to be left by algae. Together, the findings illuminate this mysterious man’s life and support an astounding new theory of the peopling of the Americas. If it weren’t for a harrowing round of panicky last-minute maneuvering worthy of a legal thriller, the remains might have been buried and lost to science forever.

Image by Grant Delin. The projecting face and nasal architecture (skull cast) are seen among Polynesians. (original image)

Image by (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Though buried far inland, Kennewick Man ate marine life and drank glacial meltwater. Analysis of just one of his worn teeth might pin down his childhood home. (original image)

Image by Grant Delin. “I’ve looked at thousands of skeletons,” says Douglas Owsley. “They were people, and there were people whocared about them.” (original image)

Image by Grant Delin. Some 20 years before his death, Kennewick Man took a spearpoint to the hip that remains lodged in his bone. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Some 20 years before his death, Kennewick Man took a spearpoint to the hip that remains lodged in his bone. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Other injuries include skull fractures, perhaps from rock throwing, and broken ribs that never fully healed. (original image)

Image by Grant Delin. Other injuries include skull fractures, perhaps from rock throwing, and broken ribs that never fully healed. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Thomas W. Stafford / Illustration from Douglas Owsley / NMNH, SI. Before eroding out, Kennewick Man lay faceup with his head upstream. Scientists concluded from his position (right, at the discovery site but deeper into the bank) that his body was buried intentionally. (original image)

Image by Donald E. Hurlbert / NMNH, SI. Amanda Danning, Sculptor, from Bay City, Texas doing a facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man September 30, 2009 (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Kennewick Man’s bones are arranged in anatomical position by NMNH’s Kari Bruwelheide. This was shot during one of the rare scientific study sessions allowed with the Kennwick skeleton. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Mandible fragment taken during the third scientific study session at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington State, and during follow-up studio photography of the stereolithographic cast skull and points at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Rib fragments (original image)

Image by Grant Delin. Bust depicting Kennewick man. (original image)

Image by Grant Delin. Bust depicting Kennewick man. (original image)

Image by Grant Delin. Dr. Douglas Owsley in his office workspace at NMNH May 29, 2014. Various cases he is examining are spread out on the work space. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Rib fragments showing details of the ends. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Kennewick Man pelvis. (original image)

Image by Chip Clark / NMNH, SI. Kennewick Man’s bones are arranged in anatomical position by NMNH’s Kari Bruwelheide. (original image)

The storm of controversy erupted when the Army Corps of Engineers, which managed the land where the bones had been found, learned of the radiocarbon date. The corps immediately claimed authority—officials there would make all decisions related to handling and access—and demanded that all scientific study cease. Floyd Johnson protested, saying that as county coroner he believed he had legal jurisdiction. The dispute escalated, and the bones were sealed in an evidence locker at the sheriff’s office pending a resolution.

“At that point,” Chatters recalled to me in a recent interview, “I knew trouble was coming.” It was then that he called Owsley, a curator at the National Museum of Natural History and a legend in the community of physical anthropologists. He has examined well over 10,000 sets of human remains during his long career. He had helped identify human remains for the CIA, the FBI, the State Department and various police departments, and he had worked on mass graves in Croatia and elsewhere. He helped reassemble and identify the dismembered and burned bodies from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Later, he did the same with the Pentagon victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Owsley is also a specialist in ancient American remains.

“You can count on your fingers the number of ancient, well-preserved skeletons there are” in North America, he told me, remembering his excitement at first hearing from Chatters. Owsley and Dennis Stanford, at that time chairman of the Smithsonian’s anthropology department, decided to pull together a team to study the bones. But corps attorneys showed that federal law did, in fact, give them jurisdiction over the remains. So the corps seized the bones and locked them up at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, often called Battelle for the organization that operates the lab.

Map of Kennewick (Jamie Simon )

At the same time, a coalition of Columbia River Basin Indian tribes and bands claimed the skeleton under a 1990 law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The tribes demanded the bones for reburial. “Scientists have dug up and studied Native Americans for decades,” a spokesman for the Umatilla tribe, Armand Minthorn, wrote in 1996. “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.” The remains, the tribe said, were those of a direct tribal ancestor. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.” The coalition announced that as soon as the corps turned the skeleton over to them, they would bury it in a secret location where it would never be available to science. The corps made it clear that, after a monthlong public comment period, the tribal coalition would receive the bones.

The tribes had good reason to be sensitive. The early history of museum collecting of Native American remains is replete with horror stories. In the 19th century, anthropologists and collectors looted fresh Native American graves and burial platforms, dug up corpses and even decapitated dead Indians lying on the field of battle and shipped the heads to Washington for study. Until NAGPRA, museums were filled with American Indian remains acquired without regard for the feelings and religious beliefs of native people. NAGPRA was passed to redress this history and allow tribes to reclaim their ancestors’ remains and some artifacts. The Smithsonian, under the National Museum of the American Indian Act, and other museums under NAGPRA, have returned (and continue to return) many thousands of remains to tribes. This is being done with the crucial help of anthropologists and archaeologists—including Owsley, who has been instrumental in repatriating remains from the Smithsonian’s collection. But in the case of Kennewick, Owsley argued, there was no evidence of a relationship with any existing tribes. The skeleton lacked physical features characteristic of Native Americans.

In the weeks after the Army engineers announced they would return Kennewick Man to the tribes, Owsley went to work. “I called and others called the corps. They would never return a phone call. I kept expressing an interest in the skeleton to study it—at our expense. All we needed was an afternoon.” Others contacted the corps, including members of Congress, saying the remains should be studied, if only briefly, before reburial. This was what NAGPRA in fact required: The remains had to be studied to determine affiliation. If the bones showed no affiliation with a present-day tribe, NAGPRA didn’t apply.

But the corps indicated it had made up its mind. Owsley began telephoning his colleagues. “I think they’re going to rebury this,” he said, “and if that happens, there’s no going back. It’s gone."

Image by National Anthropological Archives . Photos of the Ainu people of Japan, thought to be among his closest living relatives, were inspiration for Kennewick Man’s reconstruction. (original image)

Image by National Anthropological Archives . Photos of the Ainu people of Japan, thought to be among his closest living relatives, were inspiration for Kennewick Man’s reconstruction. (original image)

Image by Dr. George Monatandon / Au Pays des Ainou . Photos of the Ainu people of Japan, thought to be among his closest living relatives, were inspiration for Kennewick Man’s reconstruction. (original image)

Image by Donald E. Hurlbert / NMNH, SI. After muscle and tissue were sculpted, added creases aged the eyes. (original image)

So Owsley and several of his colleagues found an attorney, Alan Schneider. Schneider contacted the corps and was also rebuffed. Owsley suggested they file a lawsuit and get an injunction. Schneider warned him: “If you’re going to sue the government, you better be in it for the long haul.”

Owsley assembled a group of eight plaintiffs, prominent physical anthropologists and archaeologists connected to leading universities and museums. But no institution wanted anything to do with the lawsuit, which promised to attract negative attention and be hugely expensive. They would have to litigate as private citizens. “These were people,” Schneider said to me later, “who had to be strong enough to stand the heat, knowing that efforts might be made to destroy their careers. And efforts were made.”

When Owsley told his wife, Susan, that he was going to sue the government of the United States, her first response was: “Are we going to lose our home?” He said he didn’t know. “I just felt,” Owsley told me in a recent interview, “this was one of those extremely rare and important discoveries that come once in a lifetime. If we lost it”—he paused. “Unthinkable.”

Working like mad, Schneider and litigating partner Paula Barran filed a lawsuit. With literally hours to go, a judge ordered the corps to hold the bones until the case was resolved.

When word got out that the eight scientists had sued the government, criticism poured in, even from colleagues. The head of the Society for American Archaeology tried to get them to drop the lawsuit. Some felt it would interfere with the relationships they had built with Native American tribes. But the biggest threat came from the Justice Department itself. Its lawyers contacted the Smithsonian Institution warning that Owsley and Stanford might be violating “criminal conflict of interest statutes which prohibit employees of the United States” from making claims against the government.

“I operate on a philosophy,” Owsley told me, “that if they don’t like it, I’m sorry: I’m going to do what I believe in.” He had wrestled in high school and, even though he often lost, he earned the nickname “Scrapper” because he never quit. Stanford, a husky man with a full beard and suspenders, had roped in rodeos in New Mexico and put himself through graduate school by farming alfalfa. They were no pushovers. “The Justice Department squeezed us really, really hard,” Owsley recalled. But both anthropologists refused to withdraw, and the director of the National Museum of Natural History at the time, Robert W. Fri, strongly supported them even over the objections of the Smithsonian’s general counsel. The Justice Department backed off.

Owsley and his group were eventually forced to litigate not just against the corps, but also the Department of the Army, the Department of the Interior and a number of individual government officials. As scientists on modest salaries, they could not begin to afford the astronomical legal bills. Schneider and Barran agreed to work for free, with the faint hope that they might, someday, recover their fees. In order to do that they would have to win the case and prove the government had acted in “bad faith”—a nearly impossible hurdle. The lawsuit dragged on for years. “We never expected them to fight so hard,” Owsley says. Schneider says he once counted 93 government attorneys directly involved in the case or cc’ed on documents.

Meanwhile, the skeleton, which was being held in trust by the corps, first at Battelle and later at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle, was badly mishandled and stored in “substandard, unsafe conditions,” according to the scientists. In the storage area where the bones were (and are) being kept at the Burke Museum, records show there have been wide swings in temperature and humidity that, the scientists say, have damaged the specimen. When Smithsonian asked about the scientists’ concerns, the corps disputed that the environment is unstable, pointing out that expert conservators and museum personnel say that “gradual changes are to be expected through the seasons and do not adversely affect the collection.”

Somewhere in the move to Battelle, large portions of both femurs disappeared. The FBI launched an investigation, focusing on James Chatters and Floyd Johnson. It even went so far as to give Johnson a lie detector test; after several hours of accusatory questioning, Johnson, disgusted, pulled off the wires and walked out. Years later, the femur bones were found in the county coroner’s office. The mystery of how they got there has never been solved.

The scientists asked the corps for permission to examine the stratigraphy of the site where the skeleton had been found and to look for grave goods. Even as Congress was readying a bill to require the corps to preserve the site, the corps dumped a million pounds of rock and fill over the area for erosion control, ending any chance of research.

I asked Schneider why the corps so adamantly resisted the scientists. He speculated that the corps was involved in tense negotiations with the tribes over a number of thorny issues, including salmon fishing rights along the Columbia River, the tribes’ demand that the corps remove dams and the ongoing, hundred-billion-dollar cleanup of the vastly polluted Hanford nuclear site. Schneider says that a corps archaeologist told him “they weren’t going to let a bag of old bones get in the way of resolving other issues with the tribes.”

Asked about its actions in the Kennewick Man case, the corps told Smithsonian: “The United States acted in accordance with its interpretation of NAGPRA and its concerns about the safety and security of the fragile, ancient human remains.”

Ultimately, the scientists won the lawsuit. The court ruled in 2002 that the bones were not related to any living tribe: thus NAGPRA did not apply. The judge ordered the corps to make the specimen available to the plaintiffs for study. The government appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in 2004 again ruled resoundingly in favor of the scientists, writing:

because Kennewick Man’s remains are so old and the information about his era is so limited, the record does not permit the Secretary [of the Interior] to conclude reasonably that Kennewick Man shares special and significant genetic or cultural features with presently existing indigenous tribes, people, or cultures.

During the trial, the presiding magistrate judge, John Jelderks, had noted for the record that the corps on multiple occasions misled or deceived the court. He found that the government had indeed acted in “bad faith” and awarded attorney’s fees of $2,379,000 to Schneider and his team.

“At the bare minimum,” Schneider told me, “this lawsuit cost the taxpayers $5 million.”

Owsley and the collaborating scientists presented a plan of study to the corps, which was approved after several years. And so, almost ten years after the skeleton was found, the scientists were given 16 days to examine it. They did so in July of 2005 and February of 2006.

From these studies, presented in superabundant detail in the new book, we now have an idea who Kennewick Man was, how he lived, what he did and where he traveled. We know how he was buried and then came to light. Kennewick Man, Owsley believes, belongs to an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans. The few remains we have of these early people show they had longer, narrower skulls with smaller faces. These mysterious people have long since disappeared.


To get to Owsley’s office at the National Museum of Natural History, you must negotiate a warren of narrow corridors illuminated by fluorescent strip lighting and lined with specimen cases. When his door opens, you are greeted by Kennewick Man. The reconstruction of his head is striking—rugged, handsome and weather-beaten, with long hair and a thick beard. A small scar puckers his left forehead. His determined gaze is powerful enough to stop you as you enter. This is a man with a history.

Kennewick Man is surrounded on all sides by tables laid out with human skeletons. Some are articulated on padded counters, while others rest in metal trays, the bones arranged as precisely as surgeon’s tools before an operation. These bones represent the forensic cases Owsley is currently working on.

“This is a woman,” he said, pointing to the skeleton to the left of Kennewick Man. “She’s young. She was a suicide, not found for a long time.” He gestured to the right. “And this is a homicide. I know there was physical violence. She has a fractured nose, indicating a blow to the face. The detective working the case thinks that if we can get a positive ID, the guy they have will talk. And we have a positive ID.” A third skeleton belonged to a man killed while riding an ATV, his body not found for six months. Owsley was able to assure the man’s relatives that he died instantly and didn’t suffer. “In doing this work,” he said, “I hope to speak for the person who can no longer speak.”

Owsley is a robust man, of medium height, 63 years old, graying hair, glasses; curiously, he has the same purposeful look in his eyes as Kennewick Man. He is not into chitchat. He grew up in Lusk, Wyoming, and he still radiates a frontier sense of determination; he is the kind of person who will not respond well to being told what he can’t do. He met Susan on the playground when he was 7 years old and remains happily married. He lives in the country, on a farm where he grows berries, has an orchard and raises bees. He freely admits he is “obsessive” and “will work like a dog” until he finishes a project. “I thought this was normal,” he said, “until it was pointed out to me it wasn’t.” I asked if he was stubborn, as evidenced by the lawsuit, but he countered: “I would say I’m driven—by curiosity.” He added, “Sometimes you come to a skeleton that wants to talk to you, that whispers to you, I want to tell my story. And that was Kennewick Man.”

A vast amount of data was collected in the 16 days Owsley and colleagues spent with the bones. Twenty-two scientists scrutinized the almost 300 bones and fragments. Led by Kari Bruwelheide, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, they first reassembled the fragile skeleton so they could see it as a whole. They built a shallow box, added a layer of fine sand, and covered that with black velvet; then Bruwelheide laid out the skeleton, bone by bone, shaping the sand underneath to cradle each piece. Now the researchers could address such questions as Kennewick Man’s age, height, weight, body build, general health and fitness, and injuries. They could also tell whether he was deliberately buried, and if so, the position of his body in the grave.

Next the skeleton was taken apart, and certain key bones studied intensively. The limb bones and ribs were CT-scanned at the University of Washington Medical Center. These scans used far more radiation than would be safe for living tissue, and as a result they produced detailed, three-dimensional images that allowed the bones to be digitally sliced up any which way. With additional CT scans, the team members built resin models of the skull and other important bones. They made a replica from a scan of the spearpoint in the hip.

As work progressed, a portrait of Kennewick Man emerged. He does not belong to any living human population. Who, then, are his closest living relatives? Judging from the shape of his skull and bones, his closest living relatives appear to be the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, a remote archipelago 420 miles southeast of New Zealand, as well as the mysterious Ainu people of Japan.

“Just think of Polynesians,” said Owsley.

Not that Kennewick Man himself was Polynesian. This is not Kon-Tiki in reverse; humans had not reached the Pacific Islands in his time period. Rather, he was descended from the same group of people who would later spread out over the Pacific and give rise to modern-day Polynesians. These people were maritime hunter-gatherers of the north Pacific coast; among them were the ancient Jōmon, the original inhabitants of the Japanese Islands. The present-day Ainu people of Japan are thought to be descendants of the Jōmon. Nineteenth-century photographs of the Ainu show individuals with light skin, heavy beards and sometimes light-colored eyes.

Jōmon culture first arose in Japan at least 12,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 16,000 years ago, when the landmasses were still connected to the mainland. These seafarers built boats out of sewn planks of wood. Outstanding mariners and deep-water fishermen, they were among the first people to make fired pottery.

The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to an alternative view of the peopling of North America. It, along with other evidence, suggests that the Jōmon or related peoples were the original settlers of the New World. If correct, the conclusion upends the traditional view that the first Americans came through central Asia and walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down through an ice-free corridor into North America.

Sometime around 15,000 years ago, the new theory goes, coastal Asian groups began working their way along the shoreline of ancient Beringia—the sea was much lower then—from Japan and Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaska and beyond. This is not as crazy a journey as it sounds. As long as the voyagers were hugging the coast, they would have plenty of fresh water and food. Cold-climate coasts furnish a variety of animals, from seals and birds to fish and shellfish, as well as driftwood, to make fires. The thousands of islands and their inlets would have provided security and shelter. To show that such a sea journey was possible, in 1999 and 2000 an American named Jon Turk paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska following the route of the presumed Jōmon migration. Anthropologists have nicknamed this route the “Kelp Highway.”

“I believe these Asian coastal migrations were the first,” said Owsley. “Then you’ve got a later wave of the people who give rise to Indians as we know them today.”

What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”

Whether this new account of the peopling of North America will stand up as more evidence comes in is not yet known. The bones of a 13,000-year-old teenage girl recently discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico, for example, are adding to the discussion. James Chatters, the first archaeologist to study Kennewick and a participant in the full analysis, reported earlier this year, along with colleagues, that the girl’s skull appears to have features in common with that of Kennewick Man and other Paleo-Americans, but she also possesses specific DNA signatures suggesting she shares female ancestry with Native Americans.

Kennewick Man may still hold a key. The first effort to extract DNA from fragments of his bone failed, and the corps so far hasn’t allowed a better sample to be taken. A second effort to plumb the old fragments is underway at a laboratory in Denmark.


There’s a wonderful term used by anthropologists: “osteobiography,” the “biography of the bones.” Kennewick Man’s osteobiography tells a tale of an eventful life, which a newer radiocarbon analysis puts at having taken place 8,900 to 9,000 years ago. He was a stocky, muscular man about 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing about 160 pounds. He was right-handed. His age at death was around 40.

Anthropologists can tell from looking at bones what muscles a person used most, because muscle attachments leave marks in the bones: The more stressed the muscle, the more pronounced the mark. For example, Kennewick Man’s right arm and shoulder look a lot like a baseball pitcher’s. He spent a lot of time throwing something with his right hand, elbow bent—no doubt a spear. Kennewick Man once threw so hard, Owsley says, he fractured his glenoid rim—the socket of his shoulder joint. This is the kind of injury that puts a baseball pitcher out of action, and it would have made throwing painful. His left leg was stronger than his right, also a characteristic of right-handed pitchers, who arrest their forward momentum with their left leg. His hands and forearms indicate he often pinched his fingers and thumb together while tightly gripping a small object; presumably, then, he knapped his own spearpoints.

Kennewick Man spent a lot of time holding something in front of him while forcibly raising and lowering it; the researchers theorize he was hurling a spear downward into the water, as seal hunters do. His leg bones suggest he often waded in shallow rapids, and he had bone growths consistent with “surfer’s ear,” caused by frequent immersion in cold water. His knee joints suggest he often squatted on his heels. I like to think he might have been a storyteller, enthralling his audience with tales of far-flung travels.

Many years before Kennewick Man’s death, a heavy blow to his chest broke six ribs. Because he used his right hand to throw spears, five broken ribs on his right side never knitted together. This man was one tough dude.

The scientists also found two small depression fractures on his cranium, one on his forehead and the other farther back. These dents occur on about half of all ancient American skulls; what caused them is a mystery. They may have come from fights involving rock throwing, or possibly accidents involving the whirling of a bola. This ancient weapon consisted of two or more stones connected by a cord, which were whirled above the head and thrown at birds to entangle them. If you don’t swing a bola just right, the stones can whip around and smack you. Perhaps a youthful Kennewick Man learned how to toss a bola the hard way.

The most intriguing injury is the spearpoint buried in his hip. He was lucky: The spear, apparently thrown from a distance, barely missed the abdominal cavity, which would have caused a fatal wound. It struck him at a downward arc of 29 degrees. Given the bone growth around the embedded point, the injury occurred when he was between 15 and 20 years old, and he probably would not have survived if he had been left alone; the researchers conclude that Kennewick Man must have been with people who cared about him enough to feed and nurse him back to health. The injury healed well and any limp disappeared over time, as evidenced by the symmetry of his gluteal muscle attachments. There’s undoubtedly a rich story behind that injury. It might have been a hunting accident or a teenage game of chicken gone awry. It might have happened in a fight, attack or murder attempt.

Much to the scientists’ dismay, the corps would not allow the stone to be analyzed, which might reveal where it was quarried. “If we knew where that stone came from,” said Stanford, the Smithsonian anthropologist, “we’d have a pretty good idea of where that guy was when he was a young man.” A CT scan revealed that the point was about two inches long, three-quarters of an inch wide and about a quarter-inch thick, with serrated edges. In his analysis, Stanford wrote that while he thought Kennewick Man had probably received the injury in America, “an Asian origin of the stone is possible.”

The food we eat and the water we drink leave a chemical signature locked into our bones, in the form of different atomic variations of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. By identifying them, scientists can tell what a person was eating and drinking while the bone was forming. Kennewick Man’s bones were perplexing. Even though his grave lies 300 miles inland from the sea, he ate none of the animals that abounded in the area. On the contrary, for the last 20 or so years of his life he seems to have lived almost exclusively on a diet of marine animals, such as seals, sea lions and fish. Equally baffling was the water he drank: It was cold, glacial meltwater from a high altitude. Nine thousand years ago, the closest marine coastal environment where one could find glacial meltwater of this type was Alaska. The conclusion: Kennewick Man was a traveler from the far north. Perhaps he traded fine knapping stones over hundreds of miles.

Although he came from distant lands, he was not an unwelcome visitor. He appears to have died among people who treated his remains with care and respect. While the researchers say they don’t know how he died—yet—Owsley did determine that he was deliberately buried in an extended, prone position, faceup, the head slightly higher than the feet, with the chin pressed on the chest, in a grave that was about two and a half feet deep. Owsley deduced this information partly by mapping the distribution of carbonate crust on the bones, using a magnifying lens. Such a crust is heavier on the underside of buried bones, betraying which surfaces were down and which up. The bones showed no sign of scavenging or gnawing and were deliberately buried beneath the topsoil zone. From analyzing algae deposits and water-wear marks, the team determined which bones were washed out of the embankment first and which fell out last. Kennewick Man’s body had been buried with his left side toward the river and his head upstream.


The most poignant outcome? The researchers brought Kennewick Man’s features back to life. This process is nothing like the computerized restoration seen in the television show Bones. To turn a skull into a face is a time-consuming, handcrafted procedure, a marriage of science and art. Skeletal anatomists, modelmakers, forensic and figurative sculptors, a photographic researcher and a painter toiled many months to do it.

The first stage involved plotting dozens of points on a cast of the skull and marking the depth of tissue at those points. (Forensic anatomists had collected tissue-depth data over the years, first by pushing pins into the faces of cadavers, and later by using ultrasound and CT scans.) With the points gridded out, a forensic sculptor layered clay on the skull to the proper depths.

The naked clay head was then taken to StudioEIS in Brooklyn, which specializes in reconstructions for museums. There, sculptors aged his face, adding wrinkles and a touch of weathering, and put in the scar from the forehead injury. Using historic photographs of Ainu and Polynesians as a reference, they sculpted the fine, soft-tissue details of the lips, nose and eyes, and gave him a facial expression—a resolute, purposeful gaze consistent with his osteobiography as a hunter, fisherman and long-distance traveler. They added a beard like those commonly found among the Ainu. As for skin tone, a warm brown was chosen, to account for his natural color deepened by the harsh effects of a life lived outdoors. To prevent too much artistic license from creeping into the reconstruction, every stage of the work was reviewed and critiqued by physical anthropologists.

“I look at him every day,” Owsley said to me. “I’ve spent ten years with this man trying to better understand him. He’s an ambassador from that ancient time period. And man, did he have a story.”

Today, the bones remain in storage at the Burke Museum, and the tribes continue to believe that Kennewick Man is their ancestor. They want the remains back for reburial. The corps, which still controls the skeleton, denied Owsley’s request to conduct numerous tests, including a histological examination of thin, stained sections of bone to help fix Kennewick Man’s age. Chemical analyses on a lone tooth would enable the scientists to narrow the search for his homeland by identifying what he ate and drank as a child. A tooth would also be a good source of DNA. Biomolecular science is advancing so rapidly that within five to ten years it may be possible to know what diseases Kennewick Man suffered from and what caused his death.

Today’s scientists still have questions for this skeleton, and future scientists will no doubt have new ones. Kennewick Man has more to tell.

Science Still Bears the Fingerprints of Colonialism

Smithsonian Magazine

Sir Ronald Ross had just returned from an expedition to Sierra Leone. The British doctor had been leading efforts to tackle the malaria that so often killed English colonists in the country, and in December 1899 he gave a lecture to the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce about his experience. In the words of a contemporary report, he argued that “in the coming century, the success of imperialism will depend largely upon success with the microscope.”

Ross, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his malaria research, would later deny he was talking specifically about his own work. But his point neatly summarized how the efforts of British scientists was intertwined with their country’s attempt to conquer a quarter of the world.

Ross was very much a child of empire, born in India and later working there as a surgeon in the imperial army. So when he used a microscope to identify how a dreaded tropical disease was transmitted, he would have realized that his discovery promised to safeguard the health of British troops and officials in the tropics. In turn, this would enable Britain to expand and consolidate its colonial rule.

Ross’s words also suggest how science was used to argue imperialism was morally justified because it reflected British goodwill towards colonized people. It implied that scientific insights could be redeployed to promote superior health, hygiene and sanitation among colonial subjects. Empire was seen as a benevolent, selfless project. As Ross’s fellow Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling described it, it was the “white man’s burden” to introduce modernity and civilized governance in the colonies.

But science at this time was more than just a practical or ideological tool when it came to empire. Since its birth around the same time as Europeans began conquering other parts of the world, modern Western science was inextricably entangled with colonialism, especially British imperialism. And the legacy of that colonialism still pervades science today.

As a result, recent years have seen an increasing number of calls to “decolonize science”, even going so far as to advocate scrapping the practice and findings of modern science altogether. Tackling the lingering influence of colonialism in science is much needed. But there are also dangers that the more extreme attempts to do so could play into the hands of religious fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists. We must find a way to remove the inequalities promoted by modern science while making sure its huge potential benefits work for everyone, instead of letting it become a tool for oppression.

Ronald Ross at his lab in Calcutta, 1898. (Wellcome Collection, CC BY)

The gracious gift of science

When an enslaved laborer in an early 18th-century Jamaican plantation was found with a supposedly poisonous plant, his European overlords showed him no mercy. Suspected of conspiring to cause disorder on the plantation, he was treated with typical harshness and hanged to death. The historical records don’t even mention his name. His execution might also have been forgotten forever if it weren’t for the scientific inquiry that followed. Europeans on the plantation became curious about the plant and, building on the enslaved worker's “accidental finding,” they eventually concluded it wasn’t poisonous at all.

Instead it became known as a cure for worms, warts, ringworm, freckles and cold swellings, with the name Apocynum erectum. As the historian Pratik Chakrabarti argues in a recent book, this incident serves as a neat example of how, under European political and commercial domination, gathering knowledge about nature could take place simultaneously with exploitation.

For imperialists and their modern apologists, science and medicine were among the gracious gifts from the European empires to the colonial world. What’s more, the 19th-century imperial ideologues saw the scientific successes of the West as a way to allege that non-Europeans were intellectually inferior and so deserved and needed to be colonized.

In the incredibly influential 1835 memo “Minute on Indian Education,” British politician Thomas Macaulay denounced Indian languages partially because they lacked scientific words. He suggested that languages such as Sanskrit and Arabic were “barren of useful knowledge,” “fruitful of monstrous superstitions” and contained “false history, false astronomy, false medicine.”

Such opinions weren’t confined to colonial officials and imperial ideologues and were often shared by various representatives of the scientific profession. The prominent Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton argued that the “the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own (the Anglo Saxon).” Even Charles Darwin implied that “savage races” such as “the negro or the Australian” were closer to gorillas than were white Caucasians.

Yet 19th-century British science was itself built upon a global repertoire of wisdom, information and living and material specimens collected from various corners of the colonial world. Extracting raw materials from colonial mines and plantations went hand in hand with extracting scientific information and specimens from colonized people.

Sir Hans Sloane’s imperial collection started the British Museum. (Paul Hudson/Wikipedia, CC BY)

Imperial collections

Leading public scientific institutions in imperial Britain, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the British Museum, as well as ethnographic displays of “exotic” humans, relied on a global network of colonial collectors and go-betweens. By 1857, the East India Company’s London zoological museum boasted insect specimens from across the colonial world, including from Ceylon, India, Java and Nepal.

The British and Natural History museums were founded using the personal collection of doctor and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. To gather these thousands of specimens, Sloane had worked intimately with the East India, South Sea and Royal African companies, which did a great deal to help establish the British Empire.

The scientists who used this evidence were rarely sedentary geniuses working in laboratories insulated from imperial politics and economics. The likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle and botanist Sir Joseph Banks on the Endeavour literally rode on the voyages of British exploration and conquest that enabled imperialism.

Other scientific careers were directly driven by imperial achievements and needs. Early anthropological work in British India, such as Sir Herbert Hope Risley’s Tribes and Castes of Bengal, published in 1891, drew upon massive administrative classifications of the colonized population.

Map-making operations including the work of the Great Trigonometrical Survey in South Asia came from the need to cross colonial landscapes for trade and military campaigns. The geological surveys commissioned around the world by Sir Roderick Murchison were linked with intelligence gathering on minerals and local politics.

Efforts to curb epidemic diseases such as plague, smallpox and cholera led to attempts to discipline the routines, diets and movements of colonial subjects. This opened up a political process that the historian David Arnold has termed the “colonization of the body”. By controlling people as well as countries, the authorities turned medicine into a weapon with which to secure imperial rule.

New technologies were also put to use expanding and consolidating the empire. Photographs were used for creating physical and racial stereotypes of different groups of colonized people. Steamboats were crucial in the colonial exploration of Africa in the mid-19th century. Aircraft enabled the British to surveil and then bomb rebellions in 20th-century Iraq. The innovation of wireless radio in the 1890s was shaped by Britain’s need for discreet, long-distance communication during the South African war.

In these ways and more, Europe’s leaps in science and technology during this period both drove and were driven by its political and economic domination of the rest of the world. Modern science was effectively built on a system that exploited millions of people. At the same time it helped justify and sustain that exploitation, in ways that hugely influenced how Europeans saw other races and countries. What’s more, colonial legacies continue to shape trends in science today.

Polio eradication needs willing volunteers. (Department for International Development, CC BY)

Modern colonial science

Since the formal end of colonialism, we have become better at recognizing how scientific expertise has come from many different countries and ethnicities. Yet former imperial nations still appear almost self-evidently superior to most of the once-colonized countries when it comes to scientific study. The empires may have virtually disappeared, but the cultural biases and disadvantages they imposed have not.

You just have to look at the statistics on the way research is carried out globally to see how the scientific hierarchy created by colonialism continues. The annual rankings of universities are published mostly by the Western world and tend to favor its own institutions. Academic journals across the different branches of science are mostly dominated by the U.S. and western Europe.

It is unlikely that anyone who wishes to be taken seriously today would explain this data in terms of innate intellectual superiority determined by race. The blatant scientific racism of the 19th century has now given way to the notion that excellence in science and technology are a euphemism for significant funding, infrastructure and economic development.

Because of this, most of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean are seen either as playing catch-up with the developed world or as dependent on its scientific expertise and financial aid. Some academics have identified these trends as evidence of the persisting “intellectual domination of the West” and labeled them a form of “neo-colonialism.”

Various well-meaning efforts to bridge this gap have struggled to go beyond the legacies of colonialism. For example, scientific collaboration between countries can be a fruitful way of sharing skills and knowledge, and learning from the intellectual insights of one another. But when an economically weaker part of the world collaborates almost exclusively with very strong scientific partners, it can take the form of dependence, if not subordination.

A 2009 study showed that about 80 percent of Central Africa’s research papers were produced with collaborators based outside the region. With the exception of Rwanda, each of the African countries principally collaborated with its former colonizer. As a result, these dominant collaborators shaped scientific work in the region. They prioritized research on immediate local health-related issues, particularly infectious and tropical diseases, rather than encouraging local scientists to also pursue the fuller range of topics pursued in the West.

In the case of Cameroon, local scientists’ most common role was in collecting data and fieldwork while foreign collaborators shouldered a significant amount of the analytical science. This echoed a 2003 study of international collaborations in at least 48 developing countries that suggested local scientists too often carried out “fieldwork in their own country for the foreign researchers.”

In the same study, 60 percent to 70 percent of the scientists based in developed countries did not acknowledge their collaborators in poorer countries as co-authors in their papers. This is despite the fact they later claimed in the survey that the papers were the result of close collaborations.

A March for Science protester in Melbourne. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mistrust and resistance

International health charities, which are dominated by Western countries, have faced similar issues. After the formal end of colonial rule, global health workers long appeared to represent a superior scientific culture in an alien environment. Unsurprisingly, interactions between these skilled and dedicated foreign personnel and the local population have often been characterized by mistrust.

For example, during the smallpox eradication campaigns of the 1970s and the polio campaign of past two decades, the World Health Organization’s representatives found it quite challenging to mobilize willing participants and volunteers in the interiors of South Asia. On occasions they even saw resistance on religious grounds from local people. But their stringent responses, which included the close surveillance of villages, cash incentives for identifying concealed cases and house-to-house searches, added to this climate of mutual suspicion. These experiences of mistrust are reminiscent of those created by strict colonial policies of plague control.

Western pharmaceutical firms also play a role by carrying out questionable clinical trials in the developing world where, as journalist Sonia Shah puts it, “ethical oversight is minimal and desperate patients abound.” This raises moral questions about whether multinational corporations misuse the economic weaknesses of once-colonized countries in the interests of scientific and medical research.

The colonial image of science as a domain of the white man even continues to shape contemporary scientific practice in developed countries. People from ethnic minorities are underrepresented in science and engineering jobs and more likely to face discrimination and other barriers to career progress.

To finally leave behind the baggage of colonialism, scientific collaborations need to become more symmetrical and founded on greater degrees of mutual respect. We need to decolonize science by recognizing the true achievements and potential of scientists from outside the Western world. Yet while this structural change is necessary, the path to decolonization has dangers of its own.

Science must fall?

In October 2016, a YouTube video of students discussing the decolonisation of science went surprisingly viral. The clip, which has been watched more than 1 million times, shows a student from the University of Cape Town arguing that science as a whole should be scrapped and started again in a way that accommodates non-Western perspectives and experiences. The student’s point that science cannot explain so-called black magic earned the argument much derision and mockery. But you only have to look at the racist and ignorant comments left beneath the video to see why the topic is so in need of discussion.

Inspired by the recent “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign against the university legacy of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the Cape Town students became associated with the phrase “science must fall.” While it may be interestingly provocative, this slogan isn’t helpful at a time when government policies in a range of countries including the U.S., UK and India are already threatening to impose major limits on science research funding.

More alarmingly, the phrase also runs the risk of being used by religious fundamentalists and cynical politicians in their arguments against established scientific theories such as climate change. This is a time when the integrity of experts is under fire and science is the target of political maneuvering. So polemically rejecting the subject altogether only plays into the hands of those who have no interest in decolonization.

Alongside its imperial history, science has also inspired many people in the former colonial world to demonstrate remarkable courage, critical thinking and dissent in the face of established beliefs and conservative traditions. These include the iconic Indian anti-caste activist Rohith Vemula and the murdered atheist authors Narendra Dabholkar and Avijit Roy. Demanding that “science must fall” fails to do justice to this legacy.

The call to decolonize science, as in the case of other disciplines such as literature, can encourage us to rethink the dominant image that scientific knowledge is the work of white men. But this much-needed critique of the scientific canon carries the other danger of inspiring alternative national narratives in post-colonial countries.

For example, some Indian nationalists, including the country’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, have emphasized the scientific glories of an ancient Hindu civilisation. They argue that plastic surgery, genetic science, airplanes and stem cell technology were in vogue in India thousands of years ago. These claims are not just a problem because they are factually inaccurate. Misusing science to stoke a sense of nationalist pride can easily feed into jingoism.

Meanwhile, various forms of modern science and their potential benefits have been rejected as unpatriotic. In 2016, a senior Indian government official even went so far as to claim that “doctors prescribing non-Ayurvedic medicines are anti-national.”

The path to decolonization

Attempts to decolonize science need to contest jingoistic claims of cultural superiority, whether they come from European imperial ideologues or the current representatives of post-colonial governments. This is where new trends in the history of science can be helpful.

For example, instead of the parochial understanding of science as the work of lone geniuses, we could insist on a more cosmopolitan model. This would recognize how different networks of people have often worked together in scientific projects and the cultural exchanges that helped them–even if those exchanges were unequal and exploitative.

But if scientists and historians are serious about “decolonizing science” in this way, they need to do much more to present the culturally diverse and global origins of science to a wider, non-specialist audience. For example, we need to make sure this decolonized story of the development of science makes its way into schools.

Students should also be taught how empires affected the development of science and how scientific knowledge was reinforced, used and sometimes resisted by colonized people. We should encourage budding scientists to question whether science has done enough to dispel modern prejudices based on concepts of race, gender, class and nationality.

Decolonizing science will also involve encouraging Western institutions that hold imperial scientific collections to reflect more on the violent political contexts of war and colonization in which these items were acquired. An obvious step forward would be to discuss repatriating scientific specimens to former colonies, as botanists working on plants originally from Angola but held primarily in Europe have done. If repatriation isn’t possible, then co-ownership or priority access for academics from post-colonial countries should at least be considered.

This is also an opportunity for the broader scientific community to critically reflect on its own profession. Doing so will inspire scientists to think more about the political contexts that have kept their work going and about how changing them could benefit the scientific profession around the world. It should spark conversations between the sciences and other disciplines about their shared colonial past and how to address the issues it creates.

Unravelling the legacies of colonial science will take time. But the field needs strengthening at a time when some of the most influential countries in the world have adopted a lukewarm attitude towards scientific values and findings. Decolonization promises to make science more appealing by integrating its findings more firmly with questions of justice, ethics and democracy. Perhaps, in the coming century, success with the microscope will depend on success in tackling the lingering effects of imperialism.