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Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, And The Battle For Native American Identity Paperback – April 3, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Since its discovery in 1996, the issues surrounding Kennewick Man have grown ever more complicated and controversial. Out of this fracas comes Skull Wars, David Hurst Thomas's masterful contribution to the debate. The book is sure to stir passions even as it seeks to offer a better way for archeologists, anthropologists, and Native Americans to work together in the future. When it was determined that Kennewick Man, a skeleton with Caucasoid features discovered near Kennewick, Washington, was estimated to be more than 9,000 years old, it effectively lobbed a grenade into the already tense arena of the origins of the pre-Columbus peoples of the United States. Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, leads the reader through the development of American anthropology and archeology, the many reinterpretations of Native Americans by non-Indians, an assertion of native rights, and the eventual intercession of the federal government, ironically, as protective party. Skull Wars is a gripping account of the way race, scientific practice, history, and politics converged around an ancient skeleton. --Julia Riches --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Is there a greater paradox in North American history than the Indian? Labeling them either superhuman or subhuman, noble or savage, we've had a hard time placing the people that Columbus mistakenly called "los Indios." When Native Americans began disappearing after centuries of maltreatment, scientists promoting bogus racial theories arrogantly collected Indian cultural artifacts and physical remains, robbing graves and decapitating those killed in battle, before packing off their religious items, skulls and bones to museums. Is it any wonder that many Indians today bitterly resent and mistrust both anthropology and archeology, referring to them as "vulture cultures"? In 1996, one of the continent's oldest and most complete skeletons, Kennewick Man, was unearthed in central Washington. When some scientists claimed it possessed Caucasoid features and openly questioned the origins of the continent's early inhabitants, Indians were incensed and demanded the return of the remains, setting off yet another furor in this ancient tug-of-war over history written in bone. Thomas, an eminent anthropologist, deftly describes the ongoing battle over Kennewick Man and past stormy relations between Indians and the scientists bent on studying them. With wit, logic and much reasoned sympathy for Native Americans, he lambastes science for failing to see Indian peoples as they really are, while exploring the sensitive and difficult question of who ultimately owns history. Thomas's impassioned plea for mutual respect is a welcome bridge across a dark chasm of American history. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046509225X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465092253
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #430,049 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Marcus D. Seymour on April 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The historical perspective that is the core of David's book makes the positions of the adversaries in the Kennewick Man dispute more understandable. I expected a telling of the controversy surrounding Kennewick Man, and perhaps some suggestions about what the remains mean to theories concerning the peopling of the New World. What I got was a lucid history of the stormy relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists that forms a good part of the background for the Kennewick Man controversy. David goes some distance (maybe too far)to be charitable to all the players in this scientific soap opera. He makes it clear, however, that Native American remains are part of Native American history and identity, not specimens to be mined for cranial measurements and loopy inferences about intellectual capability. I am left with a nagging question that David doesn't address, but is at the center of this controversy: how do we KNOW the affiliation of human remains? Surely NAGPRA can't ascertain affiliation, although it can apparently assign it. In the absence of some rigorous examination of remains by qualified individuals we are left with the prospect of conflicting claims that characterizes "Kennnewick Man: The Soap". If affiliation is determined by legislative fiat or dueling attorneys, we all lose. Classifying remains as Native American because they are found in North America does some violence to common sense - are Toyotas indigenous because we find them here? Vine DeLoria's views notwithstanding, the peopling of the New World remains a story to be told. It is possible that the Americas were peopled more than once by groups from parts of the world that conventional wisdom has long dismissed.Read more ›
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Skull Wars is a superb read - engagingly written and forcefully presented - it has relevance well beyond the anthropological and Native American communities. Thomas'interweaving of history, American socio-political history and the emergence of social sciences as practiced in the US is fascinating. He's packed an amazing amount of research into this volume. I learned much and disagree with little. Coming to terms with the issue of race in this country is still in many ways largely intractable, but made much more complex by issues of class. When compounded with the Native American experience the complexities are even more magnified.
The issues confronted in Skull Wars are particularly germane for those Native American groups that have retained some semblance of generational continuity. Thomas accurately touches on the "top down" weaknesses of the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Thomas clearly articulates that there is not a one-size fits all approach to accommodating and reconciling the concerns of legitimately affected Native Americans and the archaeological community. The positive examples at the end of the book serve as models for much of the country.
I hope Skull Wars reaches the wide audience it deserves. I enthusiastically recommend it.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By M. Rhode on August 5, 2004
Format: Paperback
Dr. Thomas' discussion on pages 57-58 of the Army Medical Museum's role in collecting human remains is misleading. The Museum (now the National Museum of Health & Medicine) was established in 1862, during the American Civil War, to begin the study of military medicine and surgery in wartime. It was not established at the urging of Professor Agassiz. US Army Surgeon General Hammond's orders pertained specifically to collecting the remains of Union and Confederate soldiers, who were overwhelmingly white, to study surgery before the era of x-rays or aseptic surgery. Thousands of specimens were sent into the Museum, including General Daniel Sickles' leg, which he personally had shipped after it was struck by a cannon ball and amputated. The specimens were studied and used to compile the six-volume study, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. After the war, the Museum did expand its collecting focus and collected Indian anthropological artifacts and remains. The artifacts were deposited with the Smithsonian Institution, based on an agreement the Smithsonian proposed in 1869. Human remains were transferred to the Medical Museum, where they were kept and studied side by side with those of American soldiers. The Museum continued collecting Native American remains until the late nineteenth century when the role was returned to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains today.

The star rating was insisted on by Amazon's computer - this note only pertains to Dr. Thomas' pages on the Army Medical Museum.

Michael Rhode, Archivist
National Museum of Health & Medicine
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Randall McGuire on July 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
David Hurst Thomas has produced an amazing book in Skull Wars. It is at once a serious scholarly history of the relationship between archaeologists and Native Americans and at the same time a good read, accessible to an informed public. Thomas tells it like it is when it comes to this history. As he points out it is a history that archaeologist cannot be proud of. He does an excellent job of demonstrating how the colonial context of archaeology shaped the actions of scholars to bad ends, often despite their good intentions.
Those individuals who call for a more balanced account of this history only wish to deny or cover up the ugly truth. Thomas is if anything too kind to many of the key figures of early archaeology and in the recent Kennewick controversy. As Thomas argues archaeologists need to learn from this history and not simply hide behind naive good intentions. Thomas demonstrates how informed archaeologists can work with Native American people to build common ground and interests. He shows us how we can go beyond the controversy to link good intentions with good actions.
I cannot verify or deny Thomas' comments on the Asatru religion but the reviews that react so negatively to them are focusing in on only a couple of paragraphs in the book. These comments have little to do with the overall point of the book or its content. Virtually no professional archaeologists accept the idea that there is evidence for Norse or other European settlement or exploration in North American much before AD 900 or that these explorations extended beyond the east coast of Canada.
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