Taking Notes: Eye on Education – Scientific Resource Lost

This column focuses on a wide range of issues affecting post-secondary students. Students are encouraged to submit suggestions and educational topics they are concerned about, or personal experiences with courses or university situations they feel other students should know about. If suggest a topic or a course alert for taking notes, contact voice@ausu.org, attn: Debbie Jabbour

SCIENTIFIC RESOURCE LOST

University researchers and scholars are mourning the loss of a valuable scientific resource. After extensive negotiation, The Canadian Museum of Civilization has agreed to allow a Quebec native group to rebury the bones of 90 ancient aboriginals, artifacts that had comprised a treasured research collection. Some of the bones are at least 5000 years old, from Morrison Island, one of North America’s most important Stone Age sites. The site is one of the best-preserved and oldest aboriginal settlements from prehistoric Canada, and the bones are considered by scientists to be an invaluable clue to the migration of ancient people to the new world.

Susan Pfeiffer, dean of graduate studies at the University of Toronto, was a young anthropologist when she earned her PhD researching these remains 30 years ago. She is saddened by the decision, stating that scientists still have much to learn from studying the collection, particularly as research methods continue to advance. Assuming the remains would be held by the museum in perpetuity, she admits that she hadn’t even x-rayed them, and DNA evidence has not been collected.

The Kitigan Zibi First Nation has been pressuring the museum to return the bones to the Algonquin community for reburial since 2002. Although the museum argued that artifacts more than 1000 years old cannot be reliably affiliated with any modern day native group, the Algonquin group insisted that “their spirit will not lay to rest until they have been returned in a proper way from where they came.” Recognizing that future archaeological research depends on maintaining a good relationship with aboriginal communities in the area, museum officials reluctantly acceded to the request. They acknowledge, however, that the reburial represents a loss of scientific knowledge. Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford and University of California molecular biologist Douglas Wallace, who recently fought a similar legal battle over the Kennewick Man skeleton in Washington State, begged the university not to give up the remains, arguing for the significance of the Morrison Island collection, stating that scientists “need to stick to their guns and the people of Canada need to rally behind the scientists” (Boswell, 2005).

Boswell, R. (2005, June 21). Reburial of aboriginal bones a grave loss of science: Skeletons from Stone Age sites could hold clues to New World migration. The Edmonton Journal. Canada.com news:
http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=3c67879c-cb16-44de-a632-d6ad9897462b
More on Kennewick Man:
http://www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/kman/kman_home.htm http://www.cr.nps.gov/aad/kennewick/

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