Bones and Blonds

Kennewick Man serves as a reminder to separate fantasy and science.

It's been a bad couple of weeks for Aryans. The news from their favorite obsessions—archaeology and genetics—hasn't been good.

First there is the conclusion of researchers that Kennewick Man was not a white man. Scientists examining K-Man's 9,000-year-old remains at Seattle's Burke Museum put that notion to bed.

The racial identity of Kennewick Man has been central to his celebrity and controversy. When K-Man was found by the bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick in 1996, he was claimed by local Native Americans, who believed him to be a sacred ancestor.

That became a contentious issue when the first archaeologist to examine him, James Chatters, mistook his skull for that of a white settler and later announced that it had "Caucasoid" characteristics, which many translated as Caucasian. This "white" identity became firmly entrenched in the public imagination when Chatters and a sculptor created a "forensic reconstruction" from K-Man's skull that has him looking like Jean Luc Picard, the Next Generation captain of the starship Enterprise.

The importance of this was in the projection we whites could make upon the bones: What if history could be turned on its head and we discovered that North America's real "first people" were white?

When the government sought to turn over K-Man's remains to the tribes for burial, scientists sued, claiming that his bones were so old it was unlikely that he had any connection with local tribes. And while the litigants didn't claim that K-Man was a white man, the burden of proof shifted to the Indians to prove he was one of theirs. They didn't succeed in court, so now the scientists are able to examine the bones at the Burke.

They've announced that they don't believe he was white—or connected to local tribes. More likely, they concluded, he closely resembles a Polynesian or immigrants from Asia and Siberia, like the Ainu of northern Japan.

That meant that K-Man needed a public makeover. So this week, Time magazine stepped up with a cover image depicting him as a pan-Asian androgyne. You might even mistake him for a young Sulu, Star Trek's original Enterprise helmsman.

At least we now know that K-Man could fly a starship.

The two Kennewick Man portraits demonstrate that much of this "science" is projection—what we want to see in his bones. At least one of these portraits, if not both, must be total nonsense. They're also indicative of our continued fixation on race and the huge importance we attach to characteristics that are now known to be genetically insignificant and ephemeral.

Which brings us to the second bit of bad news for Aryans. The Times of London reports that evolutionary scientists have concluded that blond hair evolved rather quickly over a very short period in what is now northern Europe about 10,000 years ago. It was a rare mutation that was a sexual turn-on for male Ice Age hunters, who were in short supply because of their nasty, brutish, and short lives. Blond hair and blue eyes gave some cave gals an unfair advantage in finding rare male mates, and soon the mutation spread. (Aren't you glad science is so free of male fantasies?)

The bad news: If blond hair evolved quickly, it can also presumably disappear quickly.

To add perspective, albeit extreme perspective, I recommend a new book by science writer and British Columbia resident Heather Pringle. The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (Hyperion, $25) is a chilling take on the Third Reich's corruption of science.

The book tells the history of the Ahnenerbe, the SS-run institute that supervised research into the Aryan and Jewish "races" under Heinrich Himmler. Their purpose was to prove the crackpot theories of the Nazis—Himmler believed that the blond, blue-eyed Aryans came from Atlantis—by engaging in anthropological, ethnic, medical, and archaeological studies around the globe. The SS sent scholars to Tibet, Finland, and Iraq in an effort to define racial groups, search for evidence of Aryanism in other peoples, and recover artifacts that would help tell the story of the by-then-faded master race. And you thought Indiana Jones was make-believe. The Germans planned to restore the Aryan "race" through eugenic breeding and mass murder. Some of the Ahnenerbe scholars were legit but all too eager to twist their work for a research grant or to prove their own Nazi prejudices; others were crazies with the full power of the Third Reich behind them.

You can always leave it to the Nazis to provide a reminder of the hideous extremes to which some humans will go in the pursuit of an agenda. But closer to home, in more innocent quarters, The Master Plan also reminds us how misguided it can be to confuse our fantasies for science. And how important it is to be skeptical of both.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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