Eske Willeslev: Listening to science; listening with science

Eske Willeslev, the Danish geneticist who led the team that explored the DNA of the Ancient One, aka Kennewick Man, is the director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.  Dr. Willerslev and the Center are using ancient DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 or 70,000 years of human history. His career and mission is outlined in a recent NYT article–

To remind, the Ancient One was found along the Columbia River in 1996, and the remains, or how to handle the remains, was contested by tribes and some members of the academic community for years. Early attending academics thought that Kennewick man looked, in skull shape particularly, more European than Native American, which brought a rush of theorizing about pre-Bering corridor, European or even Pacific Island, arrivals to the Americas. Northwest American tribal leaders—Umatilla, Colville, Nez Perce, Yakima, and others—argued ancestry and advocated reburial. After much wrangling, the academics won a legal victory and instructions to the Corps of Engineers, which held the bones, to proceed with DNA testing.

I’ve not followed the process at every step, but know from a good source, then Oregon U.S. Attorney Kris Olson, that the wrangling was tough and the Indians were patient. And I understand that initial DNA testing done in this country was too crude to make determinations. And that Willeslev and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen recently stepped in with newer and better techniques and made the determination that the Ancient One’s near relatives were American Indians, not Europeans.

Willeslev’s personal history, as outlined in the NYT article, is fascinating, but what is more fascinating is his philosophical conversion from a scientist whose view was “that human history belongs to all of us because we’re all connected, and no people have a right to stop our understanding of human history” to a scientist-humanist willing to listen to contemporary relatives of ancient peoples with their own histories and concerns about scientific inquiry.

He once proudly showed off a collection of ancient Danish skulls to Native American visitors, only to find them upset by the sight. ‘How can you treat your ancestors like that, so disrespectfully?” he recalls them asking.

But the philosophical conversion actually occurred when he was working with ancient Australian DNA. On discovering that there was resistance from some of the aboriginal people, Willeslev decided to travel to Australia to meet with them. He was shocked to learn of the history of “scientific” research on aboriginal Australians. Victorian anatomists—not unlike their US Smithsonian counterparts—had plundered burial grounds and carried off bones to put in museums. Years of such exploitation had left many aboriginal Australians suspicious of scientists. In The US, it led to passage of the “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)” in 1990.

In Denmark, it led to a rethinking on Eske Willeslev’s part. He’s still the scientist. And the Australians were delighted to learn of links from the continent’s dwellers of 70,000 years ago to them today—this is certainly one of the longest continuous DNA records constructed by scientists to date.

In America, as things played out with the Ancient One, only one tribe stepped forward to provide DNA to the Danish researchers; other tribes clung to their beliefs that the bones were theirs and should be put in the ground without the new DNA science. The one tribe was enough for Willerslev and colleagues—and for the critics—and in the end, I am sure that our Plateau tribal people were glad to have “scientific confirmation” that the Ancient One is related to them.  Like the Australian aborigines are proud of “scientific truth” linking them to 70,000 year-old ancestors.

But the story also tells us that science—and scientists—come and go. That there is always something provisional about even the “best” science. Willeslev’s good work does not make up for past abuses. This is what I take not only from the Indians, the Australian aborigines, and their experiences, but from Dr. Willerslev. A chastened scientist, he says now of the Ancient One, “it means I regret that important material is getting reburied… But when you find that these remains are genetically Native Americans, it’s not our call anymore.”

He’s working now with some Crow Indians, and suggesting that genetic work might help with the tremendous diabetes problem on their reservation. They are interested; Willeslev is listening to them and his science is at their service.

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