| 3 August 2003
Tribes, archaeologists at odds over prehistoric cemetery
Prehistoric human remains and artifacts discovered in one of the oldest known cemeteries in the USA will undergo extensive analysis, despite complaints of grave desecration from several American Indian tribes.
Federal officials say they hope to minimize destructive tests on the human bones and promptly rebury them when studies are complete, but tribes say they are considering legal action to halt further analysis. "These are our ancestors," said Walter Celestine of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe in East Texas.
After more than 18 months of talks with archaeologists, tribes and others, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the tribes' concerns and vowed to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act that prescribes treatment of such sites. Corps officials insisted that more study is warranted, given the knowledge to be gained about prehistoric culture.
The ancient cemetery, known as Buckeye Knoll, is south of Victoria and reflects more than 10,000 years of human history along the marshy Texas Gulf Coast. The site has the largest Early Archaic cemetery west of the Mississippi, holding 10 percent of all ancient human remains from 8000 BCE to 6000 BCE discovered in North America. Only about 20 similar sites have been discovered in the United States.
The graveyard was first noticed around 1960, but preliminary analysis didn't begin until 2000. Initial tests indicated that bones and primitive artifacts ranged from 600 to nearly 11,000 years old. No more excavation is planned at the site, only further study of the items found there during 2000-01. Seventy-nine sets of remains were encountered and taken to a laboratory for study and storage.
The government's decision to proceed "balances the diverse concerns of Native Americans and the archaeological community to the greatest extent possible," said Col. Leonard Waterworth, the Corps' Galveston district engineer and commander. Working with private contractors, the Corps will analyze all human remains and archaeological materials found at the site, officials said. Nondestructive techniques such as observation and measurement will provide some information about those buried there. But information about when the burials occurred and DNA makeup can be accomplished only using small samples of bones, weighing as little as 1 gram, said Corps archaeologist Jan Stokes.
"Because of concerns expressed by the consulting Native American tribes, and out of respect for the human remains, the number of samples obtained for destructive analysis has been limited to the amount necessary to obtain statistically valid results. The human remains and associated mortuary goods will be released for eventual reburial at the site of origin," Stokes said. Tribes including the Alabama-Coushatta, Choctaw, Comanche, Caddo and Tonkawa oppose the effort, said Celestine, of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe. In early 2002, they unsuccessfully demanded a halt to the project, saying the remains should never have been disturbed after the initial discovery.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, Austin American Statesman (28 July 2003)
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