Power and the Scientific Agenda

Elaine Dewar dislikes messy thinking – and uncovering the messy thinking behind the Bering Strait theory is her latest (but long-simmering) mission. That widely publicized theory posits that Aboriginal peoples migrated to North America from Asia over a land bridge to Alaska some 10,000 years ago, walking southward to populate the Americas. In her book Bones: Discovering the First Americans, Dewar not only exposes the theory’s holes but also uncovers the reasons why it has persisted for as long as it has.

“Racism,” she says, stabbing her finger at a table in Random House’s Toronto office. “And outrageous assumptions. This theory was crafted before [archeologists] went and looked.”

The Bering Strait theory says humans walked down an ice-free corridor somewhere along the western edge of the continent, dropping so-called Clovis spearpoints behind them as they walked. But no Clovis points have ever been found in Alaska, and no dated human remains of the right age have ever been found in the right places. Prior to Kennewick Man – a 9,300-year-old skeleton found in Washington State in 1996 – the only remains that had ever been found were in the eastern part of this country, in the centre of the continent, and the south.

“Everybody has an agenda here,” Dewar says” ‘This book is about tracing out how power has informed a scientific agenda.” For Dewar, the agenda is clear: if Aboriginal people are “immigrants” too, then they have no more right to the land than the European settlers who came here 500 years ago.

“People came here with categories,” says Dewar. “You have all these [racial] categories, which are categories of power, which then go on for hundreds of years and tell people who’s who. Who’s important and who’s not. Who has rights and who doesn’t.”

Dewar began Bones after writing a story for Toronto Life magazine detailing what she calls the “sordid” history of modern archeology. It was a tattle-tale piece that ratted out general industry lapses: lost remains, shoddy practices, and sloppy collections management. As a result, Dewar began to consider the relevance missing remains and shoddy practices might have on the migration/origin debate.

“Power is something that science needs to address,” Dewar asserts. “There’s been 200 years of horrendous disrespect [toward Aboriginal people and ancient remains], but there are finds that Aboriginal people have allowed people to study, because they have been approached in a respectful way. They’ve been asked for permission and they’ve thought about what it meant. When you have a circumstance of respect, science is possible.”

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