Ancient bones found at UCSD back in dispute
By Steve Schmidt - March 20, 2009
Skeletal remains unearthed at the University of California San Diego more than 30 years ago have sparked a fresh debate between the interests of science and culture - and the university is caught in the crossfire.
Administrators at the La Jolla campus want federal approval to turn over bones found near the chancellor's seaside home to the region's Kumeyaay tribes. Unearthed in 1976, the nearly 10,000-year-old remains are believed to be among the oldest found in the Western Hemisphere.
But to UCSD's chagrin, the request has generated criticism from both major parties in the dispute - the Kumeyaay and UC researchers.
Both are asking the university to drop the request, but for conflicting reasons.
Two panels of university researchers say there's not enough evidence to link the bones to Kumeyaay culture, so they should remain available for research.
And the Indian bands, which formally requested the bones three years ago, now say they don't want them as long as researchers consider them "culturally unidentifiable," calling the designation disrespectful.
"The Kumeyaay want their ancestors back, and they want to bury them appropriately," Michele Fahley, an attorney representing the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, said yesterday.
Gary Matthews, UCSD vice chancellor for resource management,said that he was perplexed by the double-barreled opposition but that the university will stick with its request for now.
"We're really trying to do the right thing . . . and we've been criticized by both sides," Matthews said. "What are we supposed to do?"
The remains are in a safe at the San Diego Archaeological Center, near Escondido. They consist of three sets of skeletal remains, including those of a young man and older woman buried together. Scientists believe the bones are between 8,977 and 9,603 years old.
Kumeyaay leaders had asked UCSD to turn over the bones for reburial, saying their people have been in the region since the "beginning."
"Leave them be. They are not here for your exploitation," Louie Guassac, a Sycuan band member, said in a recent interview.
Fahley, an attorney with California Indian Legal Services in Escondido, said the tribes provided UCSD with evidence from scholars showing that the remains are linked to the modern-day Kumeyaay.
To argue otherwise "is disrespectful to the tribes and their ancestors," she said.
But a panel chaired by UCSD anthropologist Margaret Schoeninger concluded last year that the bones can't be identified as Kumeyaay. A study conducted for the panel by a San Diego State University anthropologist identified the remains as American Indian but didn't link them to any particular tribe, Schoeninger said.
A systemwide University of California research committee reached a similar conclusion.
Schoeninger said handing over the remains would undermine scientific research because further study of the bones could reveal, with the development of new research technology in fields such as DNA sequencing, more about the peopling of the New World.
"These skeletons are not materials that can be duplicated in the future," Schoeninger wrote in a March 5 letter to the UCSD Academic Senate, asking that Chancellor Marye Anne Fox withdraw the university's request.
"Despite more than a century of research, we don't know when the Americas were first populated, by whom they were populated, how people got here, or how many immigrations occurred," Schoeninger wrote.
Ross Frank, an ethnic-studies professor at UCSD, was part of Schoeninger's panel - and the only member who considered the remains Kumeyaay. He said the archaeological record of the past 10,000 years is uneven, but the bulk of evidence points to a Kumeyaay link.
Also, turning over the bones "is the only appropriate, moral thing to do," Frank said.
On Feb. 23, Matthews submitted a 37-page request on UCSD's behalf to the National Park Service, asking for a federal review board's support in turning over the bones to the tribes.
"We feel . . . this is the most prudent and responsible step forward," he said of the university's decision.
The review board, which oversees the Native American Graves Preservation and Repatriation Act, is expected to consider the request at a meeting in late May.
If the panel backs UCSD's request, the issue would land on the desk of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. A final decision could be made within a few months, said David Tarler, a program administrator based in Washington, D.C.
The act, created in 1990, allows universities, museums and other research institutions to return certain American Indian artifacts to federally recognized tribes that request them.
In several cases, federal officials have permitted the disposition of remains to American Indian groups, even if the bones weren't clearly linked to the tribes.
Kumeyaay representatives weren't ready yesterday to say how they would respond if UCSD continues with its request and wins approval.
Matthews believes scientists have had adequate time to study the remains. He said he's unaware of any formal request from researchers to examine the bones further.
Academic Senate Chairman Dan Donoghue said the university is in a delicate spot as it tries to weigh the legitimate needs of all major players on the issue.
"How do you balance those needs?" Donoghue asked.
Background: San Diego County's Kumeyaay tribes had asked UCSD to turn over skeletal remains unearthed near the chancellor's home in La Jolla. Local American Indians say the remains are part of their ancestry. But UC researchers say there's not enough evidence to link the nearly 10,000-year-old bones to Kumeyaay culture.
What's changing: UCSD is seeking federal approval to hand over the bones to the tribes, even though the remains are classified as "culturally unidentifiable."
The future: A National Park Service board is scheduled to consider the request in May.
Chancellor Marye Anne Foxe: email@example.com.
(Wants the remains returned) Vice Chancellor, Gary Matthews: firstname.lastname@example.org.
UCSD anthropologist, Margaret Schoeninger: email@example.com.
(Wants the remains returned) Ethnic-Studies Professor, Ross Frank: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Academic Senate Chairman, Daniel J. Donoghue: email@example.com.