Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Kennewick: A Dissenting View

John Hawks has posted some interesting thoughts on Kennewick. Pharyngula, Keat's Telescope and Savage Minds have all linked to it. Much as I like, and have learned from, Hawks' blog I have to disagree with his view on the subject. The gist of Hawks' post is that the new studies are essentially the same as the studies done prior to the court battle. In other words the new studies are essentially fact checking. He also doesn't like the way the new studies are being portrayed. The press is portraying the new studies as if these were the first on Kennewick (I agree with Hawks' on this point). Regular readers of this blog already know that there have been some studies of the Kennewick material. I have discussed some of those studies - and some of the problems with them here. Let me say at this point that previous investigations were hampered by restrictions placed on them by the conservators of the skeletal material. So let's start by comparing what has already been done with what the plaintiff's in the lawsuit are proposing to do. The plan of study can be found here.

As is standard procedure, they start with an inventory of the skeletal material. This may sound like simple fact checking but in this instance it is needed. As the proposal points out:

Among other things, there are unresolved differences between the records compiled by Dr. Owsley in October 1998 and the records compiled during the studies conducted by the National Park Service (“NPS”) in 1999. In addition, identifications of bone fragments have not been finalized. For example, the number and specific identification of all ribs (or rib fragments) recovered at the discovery site have not been determined. The inventory to be conducted during plaintiffs’ study session will attempt to resolve these and other bone identification and assignment questions.

The next step will be assembly and reconstruction of the skeletal material:

The cranium, mandible and selected postcranial bones will be reconstructed using Acryloid B-72. Some of the postcranial bones to be reconstructed are: both humeri, both femora, both tibiae and the right fibula. In addition, the right innominate and those ribs displaying pathological conditions will be reconstructed if doing so will aid in other investigations of the skeleton.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this type of reconstruction was not allowed:

Given the conservators' concerns regarding the use of permanent adhesives and consolidants, we elected to refit postcranial elements and maintain the stability of fragments by hand.

Which led to:
Prior to reconstruction of the cranium, all individual pieces of maxilla, mandible, zygomatics, and the neurocranium were measured by Powell (see Methods below). Facial bone fragments were refit by Powell and Odegaard, with input and assessment by Rose throughout the day-long process. Several times during the reconstruction process, pieces were removed, refit, and reattached to provide the best possible alignment of fragments.

Clearly a difficult situation.

Once the basics are out of the way there are 14 different analysis planned. Ranging from some of the more basic stuff (taphonomic and pathological assessment of the skeleton, age, gender, stature) to some more esoteric stuff:

Three dimensional coordinate data of the cranium will be collected using an electronic digitizer to record the x, y and z coordinates of each point touched. These data will be supplemented with measurements taken by hand instruments for those areas of the cranium (such as the mandible) not adequately measured by the digitizer.

Why is this important?

Coordinate data provide much finer characterization of morphology and allow explicit comparisons of shape. It is also possible to increase visual appreciation of variation by using wire frame models of skulls obtained by connecting landmarks. Coordinate data also allow computation of non-standard measurements, which may provide greater insights into variation among early American crania and between early and later American crania.
It goes without saying that this has not yet been done on the Kennewick cranium.

Another interesting study proposed is the laser scanning of the skull and other elements:

The purpose of the laser scan is to obtain and record accurate 3D models of the shapes of the skull and other scanned bones. Such models can be used in a variety of ways including the following: (a) to verify measurements and other data obtained by other investigators; (b) to provide data for adjusting measurements of the skull or other bones to compensate for any postmortem deformation or damage; (c) to visually compare the skull with skulls of other prehistoric (and modern) individuals; (d) to produce casts of the skull and other scanned bones. The data obtained will be recorded in a coordinate based STL file that can be archived in industry-standard formats for access by future investigators.

Also not done by NPS scientists.

They are also considering stable isotope analysis which can give information on whether they were eating terrestrial vs marine animals and what types of plants were being consumed. This analysis is contigent on finding sufficient collagen in the bones.

Another interesting study not performed by NPS scientists is the cross-sectional analysis of the femora, humeri and tibiae. Which can be used to understand activity levels (See Ruff's article in Skeletal Biology of Past Peoples: Research Methods).

NPS researchers utilized databases developed by Howells and Hanihara. The new study will uses databases developed by Jantz, Brace, Owsley and Turner to name a few.

To sum up, the original researchers were hampered by a lot more restrictions than the group that won the law suit. Consequently, although some of the analysis will be the same (gender, etc) some will be performed in more detail. For example the NPS scientists had to rely on fragmentary bones and used the humerus because they didn't have a complete femora in the interval the missing pieces to the femora have been found so a more accurate estimate can be formed. Take the age of the skeleton as another example. The age was determined based on palantine suture closure (there is some doubt about the accuracy of this method (see the Journal of Forensic Sciences 36(2):512-519)and ectocranial suture closure. Given the differences in ectocranial suture closure between, say, the Todd collection and modern forensic samples I take a second look as well. Some analysis (such as those mentioned above) will be completely new. Some of this will be mere "fact checking" in the sense used by Hawks. This is, partially, however, a fuction of proper methodology. Determining things like gender, ethnicity, stature etc, are usually done by the examiner regardless of whether this has been done before.

Having said all that, I totally agree with Hawks' assessment of the way the new studies have been portrayed. I, for one, hadn't really thought much in the way a research had been done on Kennewick till a commenter on a post concerning the peopling of the America's (back in May) caused me to do some checking (results of which are posted here). After reading a few newspaper articles concerning Kennewick I realized journalist do not know anything about anthropology and were more concerned with sensationalizing Kennewick than they were about getting the facts straight. It was at that point that I decided to do my recent four part series on the subject.