How and when people first set foot in the Americas is one of the enduring mysteries of human history. Most archaeologists now agree people lived in the Americas before Clovis-style tools—once thought to be linked to the first Americans—appeared about 13,000 years ago. Last year, for example, researchers reported human footprints in White Sands National Park in New Mexico, dating back 23,000 years.
Many scientists pursuing the question acknowledge that too often, they have not included Native American perspectives in their approach or gotten full, informed permission to research Native remains, artifacts, or genes. But a new generation is working to change that. Science talked with paleogeneticist Jennifer Raff of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who critiques some genetic approaches in her book Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, published today, and with archaeologist Joe Watkins. Watkins, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is the immediate past president of the Society for American Archaeology and a consultant at Archaeological and Cultural Education Consultants in Tucson, Arizona.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Q: What’s the leading view on how people got to the Americas and when? Does genetics have more to tell us about this?
Jennifer Raff: The genetic and archaeological data both support an entry into the Americas sometime after the first traces of people in [northern] Siberia appear around 30,000 years ago. There’s disagreement on exactly how early, but the majority of scholars agree people were present in the Americas by at least 14,000 years ago. Some think it might have been as early as 27,000 B.C.E., based on sites like White Sands and genetic evidence. But there are major gaps geographically and temporally in the genetic record, like in the middle of North America.
Q: For hundreds of years, many archaeologists have hurt Native communities by disrespecting their dead. In the past decade, the rush to sample ancient DNA from early Americans and modern DNA from Native people has raised many of the same concerns. Can scientists do better?
J.R.: The field is going through a new discussion on ethics. Ancient DNA is a very competitive, fast-moving field. That has [discouraged] community consultation with Indigenous groups, which can take years to establish trust. To do this work well, we need relationships that last longer than the typical length of a research grant. That can be very difficult for junior researchers.
Joe Watkins: There have also been several statements trying to create ethical guidelines for the field recently. They may be faltering, but it’s progress—at least there are steps. [See, for example, this statement in Cell and this one in Nature.]
J.R.: In the last few years, there have also been increasing requirements for [community] engagement as part of ethics statements and increasing scrutiny as part of grant proposals. That’s good: You need structural and institutional changes to reinforce calls for ethical reform. There are geneticists who are doing this in really good ways and some who haven’t quite kept pace with the way it should be done—not respecting descendant communities’ wishes with regard to their ancestors, or not providing full transparency about what research will be done with genetic samples.
Q: Some tribes have pushed back against ancient DNA research, which destroys small amounts of human remains. How do you create productive discussions around these concerns?
J.W.: Part of strengthening relationships is bringing in the social and historical concerns of American Indians and understanding the reasons they often feel the way that they do. Too often archaeology and genetics and many of the sciences have jumped in and said, “We need your dead ancestors to give you access to your history.” Meanwhile, tribal people are saying, “We know our history. It’s given to us by our stories and tribal elders. You may not recognize it as epistemologically equal to your science, but Native science has worked for us for centuries and generations. Who are you to tell us your science is better than ours?”
J.R.: There are different ways of looking at the past. One of the ways is with archaeology, and one of the ways is with genetic data. But there are other ways to view things, and we should be respectful of these traditional knowledges about history. I’ve tried to do that by not calling things “prehistory,” [because it excludes oral histories kept by Native people] although I think I’m going to get flak from some archaeologists about that. “Origin myth” is another term a lot of people find derogatory.
Q: What factors have helped improve archaeological practices around Native material?
J.W.: The National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [NAGPRA] of 1990 were turning points. Since that time, younger archaeologists have been taught in schools about their legal responsibility and now recognize that even more than that, it’s an ethical responsibility. Even if the law doesn’t require it, good archaeology now requires consulting with tribal people.
Q: Does genetics need to catch up?
J.R.: Yes, absolutely. But there are plenty of geneticists who are already there, thanks in large part to the leadership by Indigenous scientists themselves. I’ve even seen older scholars coming to me saying, “I wasn’t sure how I felt about NAGPRA, but my mind has changed after seeing the good that’s been done by this work and these shifts in ethics.”
Q: Repatriation and NAGPRA have been—controversially—described as antiscience. What’s your take?
J.R.: Actually, repatriation laws have really enabled a lot of the work I and some of my colleagues do. A lot of my work in North America is on ancestral remains that have been returned to tribes. As part of that process, some tribal representatives have come to me and said, “We are interested in studying the DNA before we rebury our ancestors.” A lot of these remains have been languishing in storerooms, and as part of NAGPRA they’ve been cataloged and looked at and new things have emerged as a result. Human remains from Shuká Káa [formerly On Your Knees] Cave in Alaska, for example, were excavated with the cooperation of local tribes and showed people living in the area today are related to an individual who died 10,300 years ago.
Q: How long will it take to fully include Native voices in this work?
J.W.: We are within the generation that will repair those relationships. I like to think the majority of scientists now recognize tribes are sovereign and should have a say in what happens.
When I got my Ph.D. in 1994, there were three American Indians with Ph.D.s in archaeology. Now, we’re approaching 50, in all different areas, including paleogenomics. We may be up to .03% of the field! Our voices are being heard, and people are listening for them. That’s a very good shift.
J.R.: I’m pretty critical of my discipline in my book, particularly the ways it has neglected to consult with Native communities. But in many ways this book is a love letter to this field and the many fields that are working on these questions. The critiques are motivated by my wish to see us continue to do this, to do it even more, and in a better way.