Not for the first time in recent years, American history is the subject of a ferocious political controversy, which ultimately grows out of the national obsession with race. What is new about this particular battle is the chronological setting: We are not dealing here with the New Deal, with Reconstruction, or the slave trade, but with a period inconceivably distant, before there was a United States; indeed, long before human beings had dreamed of building pyramids or ziggurats. Recent archaeological discoveries have thrown doubt upon everything we thought we knew about human origins in the New World, blowing large holes in the scientific orthodoxy of the last few decades. It is not surprising to find the new facts challenged by a rearguard of traditionally minded scholars, whose whole careers were invested in an older model, but what is alarming is that the federal government and even its Armed Forces have become utterly committed to yesterday’s orthodoxy, to the extent of resorting to chicanery and intimidation: In short, the Clinton administration has decided to declare war on American archaeology. Even more repugnant, it is doing so in pursuit of doctrines of racial purity. How exactly did we get into such a moral and intellectual quagmire?

To understand this mess, we need to appreciate the traditional view of how human beings reached the Americas. From the 1920’s, the standard view was that the New World had no human population before about 15,000 years ago, when hunters following big game trekked across the land bridge which then united Siberia and Alaska. (The date was fixed because that passage had been closed by ice for many millennia beforehand.) They rapidly spread across the continent, leaving as traces stone spearheads of the sort first discovered at Clovis, New Mexico. Other population waves came in over the following millennia, but always over the land bridge, so that all Indian populations in the Americas, north and south, ultimately derived from these Siberian migrants.

The Clovis theory of New World settlement worked magnificently so long as the amount of contrary evidence was small enough to be controlled and, above all, no material evidence of earlier settlement appeared. Partly, this was achieved by an unconscious conspiracy: Archaeologists now freely admit that when they reached Clovis levels at a particular site, they simply stopped digging, because they knew in their hearts that nothing else could be there. Unfortunately, there almost certainly was older material which was simply ignored. In the last decade or two, an intellectual revolution has ensued, which indicates, first, that people have been in the Americas for much longer than we had hitherto thought: probably for 30,000 or 40,000 years, and possibly for 50,000 or 60,000. Second, the remains of these ancient people are, frankly, in the wrong places. If they were all Siberian newcomers, it is odd that their ancient remains should be turning up more in South America than in the north, as much in the eastern half of the United States as in the west.

Trying to explain these inconvenient facts, scholars are now proposing an array of theories which, had they been proposed 20 years ago, would have been as respectable as the idea that our ancestors all landed in UFOs as part of a highschool science project on Alpha Centauri. If we find people here before 15,000 years ago, we can no longer assume a land bridge route and must entertain the idea that the first Americans came by boat, probably cruising along the coasts, and perhaps in quest of marine mammals. Instead of Siberians, they would have been more akin to the people we now find in various parts of East Asia and Polynesia or—and this is a deeply controversial idea—in Western Europe. One explosive theory suggests that the first Americans came from what is now Spain and France, bearing with them the kind of “Solutrean” culture which then prevailed in those regions. In this model, settlers would have coasted along the frozen shores of the North Atlantic via Iceland and Greenland, entering the New World through Labrador. Obviously, the people we call “Indians” appeared at some point, but either they were one group among many, or else they were late arrivals. Gradually, they displaced or (more likely) assimilated the older populations, whom we might call the true “Native” Americans.

Contributing to the demolition of the Clovis model is a small but quite devastating assemblage of anthropological evidence, in the form of ancient skeletons. The most celebrated is the fairly complete skeleton of a man found at Kennewick, Washington, in 1996 and dated to around 9,000 years before the present, but other important examples include the astonishing Spirit Cave mummy in Utah, which seems to have had brownish-red hair. None of the most ancient human remains in the Americas even vaguely fits a Siberian pattern, nor do any show a resemblance to American Indians. The oldest humans found in the Americas were characterized by long skulls and narrow faces.

At this point, we can see why the new discoveries are so troubling to American Indians, and hence to American theories of race. For Indians, the sense that they have always been here is fundamental to their whole belief system, and, often, religious values: White Americans pay homage to this idea when we use the term “Native Americans.” In some sense, Indians obviously have occupied the Americas far longer than the descendants of the British or Germans or Italians, but some Indian advocates take this “native” idea to unconscionable extremes. A whole school of “Native Creationism” holds that Indian creation myths are literally correct in asserting that particular tribes really did originate in the areas of North America which they claimed, and that scientific stories of geological change and human evolution are just another white man’s lie (though why the white man would have invented ancestral origins in Africa remains unclear). The best-known advocate of this radical position is Vine DeLoria, Jr., author of a silly farrago of misinformation and special pleading entitled Red Earth, White Lies (1995). A milder form of the creationist idea holds that particular tribes have “always been” more or less where they first appear in the historical record, and that they have “always” venerated particular mountains, rivers, or natural features in that location. This autochthonous claim is even made by tribes that we know perfectly well moved to their present location relatively recently: The Navajo arrived in their southwestern homeland around the time that Columbus was setting sail, while the Lakota/Sioux probably had not even seen the Black Hills of Dakota before the 19th century. Nevertheless, modern activists hold that the respective sacred landscapes really have belonged to those tribes since time immemorial, and anyone who claims to the contrary is a damned Indian-hater. We can imagine the distress with which Indians regard claims that their ancestors were relatively late arrivals who undertook their own particular kind of ancient ethnic cleansing, and perhaps even displaced European predecessors.

Indian rhetoric that “we have always been here” has a strong appeal not just for the usual liberal constituency, suffused in Dances With Wolves sentimentality, but also for any impartial student of American history who can appreciate that Indians frequently have been treated very, very badly by white newcomers, sometimes to the point of diabolical savagery. A substantial feeling of white guilt is understandable, and it has found expression in federal laws designed to prevent a repetition of past atrocities. The problem is that some of these well-intentioned laws now create a critical conflict between the soundly attested findings of objective science and what we can only call archaeological correctness.

The most important measure in this regard is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which was designed to prevent the kind of ghoulish exploitation of Indian skeletons which had been commonplace in earlier decades. Under the law, Indian bones which had long been gathering dust in various museums were to be restored to their tribes of origin, and special obligations were laid upon archaeologists who might come upon such remains. Any “Native American cultural items” found on federal land were to be restored to “the lineal descendants of the Native American,” or, where that could not be determined, to the tribe on whose land these remains were found. In cases of controversy, a claim could be staked by “the Indian tribe that is recognized as aboriginally occupying the area in which the objects were discovered.” The law thus institutionalizes not just one but a whole series of scholarly orthodoxies which were already shaky in 1990 and have now all but disintegrated: namely, that any pre-Columbian material remains are by definition American Indian; and, moreover, that particular tribes are “aboriginal,” that they have been in that precise area since time immemorial (or, as some would say, since the Creation).

The effect on the study of ancient origins has been catastrophic. Indian activists can protest all they like at scholarly conferences proposing new theories of early American settlement, but with NAGPRA behind them, they can directly affect—or rather, sabotage —the course of scientific discovery. The effect of NAGPRA is evident from a series of cases in which scientists have been prevented from examining ancient bones which clearly manifest non-Indian features; in some cases, remains have been handed over to local tribes for clandestine reburial in places where they will never again be polluted by the hands of white scholars. Such concealment has been the fate of crucial remains from Minnesota, while the skeleton of the 11,000-year-old Buhl Woman from Idaho was promptly handed over to the Shoshone-Bannock tribe and is, in effect, lost forever to science. The law has forbidden proper investigation of the Spirit Cave mummy: The local Paiute tribe is demanding that body, too.

The present scholarly battleground is the Kennewick skeleton, about which much has already been learned, but the principal finding is that (like the Buhl and Spirit Gave skeletons) it represents a thoroughly non-Indian body type. Despite early reports that the skull was European in nature, the best evidence now suggests Polynesian parallels. Other obvious avenues of research suggest themselves, particularly DNA testing, but the time and opportunity for study is strictly limited because of federal law. The skeleton is pre-Columbian; therefore, it is Indian; therefore, it belongs to the tribe that has “always” occupied that region—or at least, that has been there in historic times. Despite all evidence to the contrary, if Kennewick Man died on what eventually became lands of a particular tribe, he must have been an ancestor of that tribe.

The Kennewick saga is depressing in the extreme. Within weeks of the skeleton’s discovery, it was in the custody of the Army Corps of Engineers, which made it clear that, as in all such cases, it was going to return the bones forthwith to its proper and natural owners—the neighboring Indian tribes. The Corps was prevented only by the legal intervention of archaeologists, supported by a quirky body of Nordic racial theorists called the Asatru Folk Assembly, who claimed Kennewick Man as a relative. Meanwhile, intimidated by NAGPRA, neither the Corps nor the Department of the Interior did anything with the bones: God forbid they should undertake any kind of research.

The battle over “Mr. Kennewick” has since worked its way through the courts and the federal bureaucracy; at every stage, officialdom has made no secret of its desire to give the bones back to their putative Indian owners. In the process, the U.S. Army has pulled such amazing stunts as burying the site with dirt and boulders and planting trees over the area, in effect wantonly destroying a crucial archaeological monument and making it impossible to deduce anything about the skeleton’s context. Supposedly, it was operating in response to “concern” from the White House, which normally does not express such passion about technical disputes in the realm of archaeology. Other portions of the skeleton have already been “lost,” which, in terms of its historical importance, is akin to “misplacing” a copy of the Declaration of Independence. At the start of this year, the Justice Department determined that Kennewick Man was a Native American, on the grounds of his age: The bones were 9,000 years old, a date which somehow “eliminated theories” that he could be either Asian or European. Since only Indians were here at that point, the bones were Indian, Q.E.D. At the time of this writing, the disposal of the bones remains unclear, but we should expect the worst. We can also wonder whether federal authorities will permit any future embarrassments of this sort, so that comparable finds over the next few years are likely to be, literally and figuratively, buried immediately.

Nobody is suggesting a return to the days when Indian remains were displayed for paying customers to the horror of local Indian tribes, who rightly saw such acts as desecration. But for all its good intentions, NAGPRA has become a deeply dangerous law, a warrant for obscurantism and vandalism —in short, a public scandal. If even the Kennewick disaster does not force us to change the law, we might as well give up any hope for studying the archaeology of the Americas and just do what the federal government does: rely uncritically on Indian creation myths.