Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Archaeology Channel - Kuwoot Yas.Ein : His Spirit Is Looking Out From The Cave - Review

(updated 28/01/08)

This latest offering from The Archaeology Channel is one of the best I've seen, and documents the discovery and ongoing research into the 1996 find from
On Your Knees Cave, of human remains dating back 10,000 years, and thus some of the oldest bones ever recovered from this part of North America. Here's a description from TAC...

After the discovery of 10,000 year old human remains in On Your Knees Cave on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, a unique partnership formed among the Tongass National Forest, scientists and Alaska Native tribes to learn about this ancient person. The groups, brought together through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, worked to unravel the secrets of the early man and learn from each other. After this film production, DNA analysis from these remains produced strong evidence of early human coastal migration into the Americas.

It's well worth watching this video, partly to get a good idea of how the finds were made, and what they comprise, but also because it clearly shows what can be achieved when archaeologists and Native American tribespeople can achieve when there is a good dialogue and constant communication between both sides - it becomes apparent that in contrast to the arguments and acrimony surrounding the find of Kennewick Man, also back in the 1990s, there is a much greater degree of harmony between the two sides, who treat each other with consideration and have a genuine interest in co-operating with each other, as they try to unravel the mystery of exactly how long humans have been populating this part of Alaska, as well as considering the Coastal Migration Hypothesis.

E.James Dixon, from the Denver Museum of Natural History, and author of
Bones, Boats and Bison (UK/US) is featured, and it's good to see the author of a very good book actually working in the field, and setting a commendable example for other archaeologists who might in the future discover ancient American remains, and by viewing presentations such as this beforehand, come away with a very good idea of what can be achieved by going about things in the correct way.

What started out as a palaelontogy exercise, circa 1993,by Tim Heaton, it was the discovery in 1996 of human remains that began the consultation process, initiated by NAGPRA and the Forest Service, in which the advice of local tribes was sought, regarding how the archaeological investigation should go ahead, if at all. We are told that the Forest Service aren't legally required to go along with the recommendations of Native tribes, but the implication was that the feelings and wishes of Native tribes would normally be taken into consideration when deciding how to proceed.

When first informed of the discovery in the cave, there were mixed feelings - Clarence Jackson of the Tlingit Clan, and Millie Stevens, the Craig Tribal Council President, explained that out of respect for the dead, it has been traditionally held that ancient graves should never be dug up in the cause of intrusive archaeology, but that on the other hand, there was a genuine curiosity as to the origins and history of individuals such as the one found in On Your Knees Cave.

James Dixon was called in, and Terry Fifield of the Forest Service, explains how at a tribal meeting, it was felt important to find out more about the remains of this ancestral native, and what relevance there might have been to modern-day tribes still living in the area - they wre curious to know from where he had hailed, and how he had lived his life, so long ago. Rosita Worl, a Tlingit anthropologist told us how there werre those who opined that no further work should take place at the site, but tribal leaders were in favour of finding out more.

Discussions at a Historical Sites workshop, attended by tribal leaders, also addressed how future discoveries of ancient remains should be treated, and whether work would be allowed to take place - it was determined that no sites where shaman graves and burials would ever be disturbed. Millie Stevens expressed the excitement that such an ancient discovery had been made at Prince of Wales Island, Alaska and that it was as much out of historical interest.

At this point in the documentary there was a cutaway to a couple of marine birds settling on poles sticking out of the water, which reminded me of the 'wounded man' panel at Lascaux, although the visual implication may have had more to do to with Tlingit totem poles, such as the one depicted here.

Consultation and community involvement were the key ideas to come out of a meeting with James Dixon at the Denver Museum of Natural History. It was determined that if the cave was an intentional burial ground, it shouild not be disturbed. But as James Dixon explained, it seemed more likely that the individual was not intentionally buried in the cave by other humans, and had possibly been dragged there by scavenging animals.

Analysis of those remains, at what Dixon describes as one of the most important sites of its kind in North America, showed that the young male had lived there 10,300 years ago, and had survived on a marine diet that included fish, shellfish and marine mammals, such as seal and whales, and that he had been part of a seafaring tradition. From examination of the dentition and the pelvis, it is believed that the person was a young male in his 20s at time of death.

It was established from the obsidian found in situ that the material had been obtained from elsewhere in the area around Prince of Wales Island, indicating the possible existence of established trade routes, which in turn meant that people would have had to been living in the area for 'many years prior to that time (10,300 years ago), although for how much longer into the past has yet to be established, and may not be known until or when older discoveries of human remains or associated artifacts are found.

It's interesting to consider how much further back in prehistory humans had been adapted to this coastal life, putting to sea in boats in order to catch fish and work the trade routes. According to local lore, it's thought that people ventured as far south as San Francisco; references are also made to rising sea levels and melting glaciers, indicating an oral history going back more than ten millennia, which raises the question of how long oral traditions survived intact in prehistoric societies.

There is much other ground covered in the documentary, so rather than describe the entire movie, I strongly recommend watching it in its entirety - furthermore, the photography and scenery depicted is stunning to look at, and maybe it's possible to see a landscape today that probably isn't all that different to that of 10,000 years ago or more, whereas in more built up areas of the developed world, the scenery of that time has long since vanished, either due to changing flora and habitat, agriculture or urbanisation. And even in Alaska, there are native villages that are in danger of being swallowed up by urbanisation, as reported in this linked article.

see also : BBC News : Last Eyak Language Speaker, Marie Smith Jones, Dies

A final word from Richard Pettigrew of TAC...

This and other programs are available on TAC for your use and enjoyment. We urge you to support this public service by participating in our Membership ( and Underwriting ( programs. Only with your help can we continue and enhance our nonprofit public-education and visitor-supported programming. We also welcome new content partners as we reach out to the world community.

related links:

First Americans Arrived Recently, Settled Pacific Coast, DNA Study Says (National Geographic News)

Genetic analysis of early holocene skeletal remains from Alaska and its implications for the settlement of the Americas (Abstract, Brian M. Kemp et al. 2007, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 132:605-621)

Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit Is Looking Out from the Cave (Hidden Landscapes)

On Your Knees Cave (Tongass National Forest)

On Your Knees Cave (University of South Dakota)

Sealaska Heritage Institute


Tara said...

To bad I don't get this channel, it sounds like a worthwhile program. You are very right, James Dixon and his crew have worked with Native American tribes, unlike in the Kennewick Man NAGPRA case where scientists and tribes were pitted against each other. Nice to see a positive example of this getting wider dissemination.

Tim said...

Tara - thanks for your comment, and just to let you know that The Archaeology Channel is an online resource, with free access to their videos, although it is possible to purchase some of them through their online store.

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