Close to 80 local residents gathered at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History on Monday night to view a screening of “Mystery of the First Americans,” a PBS “Nova” special exploring recent discoveries about the origins of prehistoric peoples in the Americas.
The video discussed the 1996 discovery of a 9,300-year-old human skull found in Kennewick, Wash., which bears little resemblance to Indians who lived in the area at the time. The Kennewick skeleton conflicts with traditional theories about how the first Americans spread throughout the continent and raises the possibility of numerous migrations.
The screening, which was presented by the Santa Barbara County Archaeological Society, was followed by comments from John Johnson, the museum’s curator of anthropology. Johnson said the assumption that Kennewick man’s Caucasoid features make him a European is inaccurate.
“Kennewick man has features very close to the Ainu people, who are descendents of an ancient group from Japan,” he said. “These ancient people had some European features, but were not Europeans.”
With the controversy surrounding the excavation of Kennewick man, it is important to remain skeptical of the human element of scientific study, Karl Hutterer, executive director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History said.
“Take everything with a grain of salt,” Hutterer said before the screening. “No matter what your background is, you take a point of view – and so do filmmakers. So simply because it’s on video or it has been aired by a very famous television program does not mean that everything you see is just exactly the way you see it. It’s not God’s truth – it’s an opinion.”
There have been legal struggles between scientists and Indian tribes over skeletal remains such as the Kennewick man, according to Johnson. The tribes feel the skeleton is one of their descendants, and therefore should remain buried, while archeologist argue the bones are of a different descent, and wish to continue to study them. Johnson said these debates are the result of unclear laws.
“The question is how you define cultural affiliations, and unfortunately the law does not do a good job of setting guidelines,” he said. “Anthropologists want a more rigorous definition of affiliation. Also, the difference between genetic and cultural descent should be addressed.”
Charlie Schneider, a retired Santa Barbara resident, said information about human origins contained in skeletons like Kennewick man is too valuable to be reburied with scientific analysis.
“I hope there can be some compromise [with Indian tribes], which will enable scientists to do the work and then bury the bones,” Schneider said. “These new tools like carbon-dating can help us understand our common heritage.”
A related lecture titled “On the Trail of the First Americans” will be presented by Drs. Thomas Stafford and John Johnson at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 5 at the Museum of Natural History, located at 2559 Puesta Del Sol Road.