The Geek Anthropologist

Two Archaeologists Unscientifically Argue That Ethical Practice Is Anti-Science


By April M. Beisaw, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Vassar College, NY

In recent weeks, two archaeologists–Bruce Bourque and Elizabeth Weiss–have published on how archaeology has gone awry. Gone, they lament, are the days when great discoveries are made by the great adventurers who seek objective scientific knowledge from the soil and bones of forgotten peoples. These opinion pieces are followed by comments posted by all those who believe just what the authors have to say. But look closely at the words of Bruce Bourque and Elizabeth Weiss and you will see that they are trying to protect themselves and their archaeological predecessors, not an objective past nor a scientific approach to understanding it.

Bourque begins his Quillette article “The Campaign to Thwart Paleogenetic Research Into North America’s Indigenous Peoples” with the “great discovery” of archaeologist James Tuck, who he then explains was his friend. He says, “the two of us were among the first generation of professionally-trained archaeologists to take the field in north-eastern North America outside New York State.” That is like saying that you are the first person to read this article on your computer. Congratulations. I too am a professionally-trained archaeologist of north-eastern North America yet I make no similar claims to greatness. As a scientist, who I am is not more important than the quality of work that I do. That same objectivity applies to that which I study. Bourque declares the dead and their possessions to be “beautiful,” implying that they are too attractive to resist archaeological collection. My declaration is simply that ethics are a necessary part of the scientific method, while Bourque insists that ethics are hindering science. I will offer an alternative “great discovery” of archaeology to contrast with his claims, after a review of the article by Weiss.

Weiss begins her Areo Magazine article “Academic Freedom and Native American Reburials” with the assertion that repatriation is an ideology that “works against science and academic freedom, since the Native American religious leaders involved may require researchers to change their hypotheses, modify their methods or hide their results.” The arguments she uses to support her hypothesis shows a complete misunderstanding of how the Native American Repatriation and Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA) works. The Review Committee, whose membership rules she objects to, does not “decide on repatriation and reburial.” The Review Committee’s primary function is to facilitate disputes when any individual case has not reached a resolution between those who hold collections and those who seek their return. That dispute function is why the review committee’s membership is equally divided between various stakeholders. Quoting from the National NAGPRA website, of the seven members, three are nominated by national museum or scientific organizations and three are nominated by Indian Tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and traditional Native American religious leaders. The final member is someone that all the members agree to. That seems like a fair organization to me, neither anti-science nor pro-religion as Weiss claims. The decisions of the Review Committee are also non-binding, which means that they make recommendations for resolution.  

“Completing the Journey: A Graphic Narrative about NAGPRA and Repatriation” by Sonya Atalay and Jen Shannon via the Journal of the American Anthropological Association

Both Bourque and Weiss set up their articles to seek sympathy for their cause, which is that they do not want archaeologists to have to answer to anyone. That is how Indiana Jones worked, so why can’t they? Weiss claims she has “academic freedom” but does not define the limits of that freedom. Can an archaeology professor do whatever they want in the name of science? According to Inside Higher Ed, academic freedom means that one can “engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.” Academic freedom is about ideas, not about the rights to dig up and study the dead. Weiss is free to think about doing that but not actually free to do it. Quoting from Inside Higher Ed: “Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from non-university penalties if they break the law” and “Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from sanctions for professional misconduct.”

NAGPRA is a federal law. It is human rights law, property rights law, and Indian law. Weiss or Bourque have the academic freedom to think about and talk about breaking that law, but they do not have the academic freedom to study Indigenous human remains, sacred objects, or burial objects without the consent of federally recognized tribes that those individuals and items belong to. That is an objective fact, not an ideology. Weiss argues that NAGPRA is about religion, yet has no evidence for how that is true. She grasps onto the fact that oral tradition is one of many sources of evidence available for assessing repatriation claims. Quoting from the Act itself (Public Law 101-601; 25 U.S.C. 3001-3013; 104 Stat. 3048-3058) the types of evidence used include “geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, folkloric, oral traditional, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion.” None of these are given weight above the others and a preponderance of evidence is needed to support or deny a claim. Again we see that the writers of NAGPRA attempted to be very balanced. Nothing in the law says it is about religion. Maybe Weiss has NAGPRA confused with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA)?

What is the science that Bourque claims would be lost by adhering to either the letter or the spirit of a Federal law? Quoting from his Quillette article: “Archaeologists working in northern temperate and subarctic North America were quite unprepared for the discovery of such well-organized and complex cultures in cool, moist environmental zones that otherwise were characterized by apparently simpler hunting and gathering cultures.” It seems the graves of Port au Choix allowed a small group of archaeologists to see that their own previous science was wrong. Bourque’s article goes on to explain the back and forth between himself and other archaeologists about what the data were telling them. They were “at loggerheads for decades” until DNA research became possible. What did the DNA reveal? Nothing yet, and that is why Bourque is upset. As the scientists responsible for the DNA study are consulting with descendant communities, as they should, Bourque cannot have the answers he wants to satisfy his own curiosity.

Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times

To use Bourque’s trope of great archaeological discoveries, I offer the following study and its wide-reaching results. In a 2015 Nature article, Morten Rasmussen and colleagues report on their genetic analysis of the remains of the Ancient One, also known as Kennewick Man. Kennewick is the most famous of all NAGPRA cases, and one for which “science” long asserted that the individual in question was not related to the Indigenous groups who claimed him as one of their ancestors. The team of researchers present their methods and their findings: “block bootstrap results from the autosomal DNA data are highly statistically significant, showing stronger association of the Kennewick man with Native Americans than with any other continental group. We also observe that the autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome data all consistently show that Kennewick Man is directly related to contemporary Native Americans, and thus show genetic continuity within the Americas over at least the past 8,000 years” (Rasmussen et al. 2015: 458). A more accessible review of this research and its implications ran in Science News (Bower 2015). In summary, the claims of ancestry and cultural affiliation made by tribes of the Pacific Northwest to the skeletal remains discovered in 1996 were upheld by scientific DNA studies two-decades later. The Ancient One was returned to his relatives, whose oral tradition was correct all along. Weiss does not include this case in her Areo article.

Science should not occur without regard to the potential harm that research can cause. A 2009 article from the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics outlines the history of Institutional Review Boards, which were created to “avoid allowing the ends to justify the means” (Moon 2009:312). NAGPRA is a form of informed consent where archaeologists and museum professionals are required to ask those who are most closely related to the human remains under study to give permission for that study to take place. In their 2002 analysis of the ethics of ancient DNA research in anthropology Frederika Kaestle and K. Ann Horsburgh conclude that, “Because aDNA research generally falls outside the domain of Institutional Review Boards, we [scientists] must regulate ourselves, both through adhering to our field’s sometimes contradictory ethical standards as best as we can, and through serious case-by-case consideration and discussion among ourselves, our colleagues within and outside of anthropology, and other interested parties” (Kaestle and Horsburgh 2002:109). There are times when Indigenous peoples approve and support DNA analysis of their ancestors, and times when they do not. If the descendants of those that Bourque and Weiss wish to study do not want them to do so, those wishes should be respected not discounted. 

Meme created by author.

Scientists know that science is not about cherry-picking data in an effort to prove your personal opinions. If you are going to read either Weiss or Bourque’s articles, pay attention to their selection of information to support their own research agendas. These archaeologists are trying to protect themselves, not science. Weiss and Bourque both see that archaeology is moving away from its colonial roots and they are afraid they will be left behind. There is plenty of science in archaeology’s future, but that science will be grounded in ethical practice, rather than aimed at fulfilling the curiosity of a lone researcher and their friends. 

If you would like to learn more about how archaeology and genetic science can work with Indigenous ways of knowing, I recommend this new Scientific American article by Jennifer Raff “Genomes Reveal Humanity’s Journey into the Americas.” Raff (2021) explains:

“Indigenous peoples have numerous oral histories of their origins. Passed down from one generation to the next, such traditional knowledge conveys important lessons about the emergence of each group’s identity as a people and their relationship with their lands and nonhuman relatives. Some of these histories include migration from another place as part of their origins; others do not. The framework that most Western scientists use in understanding the history of population movements is different. This article will focus on their models for the peopling of the Americas, while respecting and acknowledging that these models stand alongside diverse and ancient oral histories with which they may or may not be congruent.”

Raff’s article presents good science with a concern for ethics and a respect for Indigenous ways of knowing. Her article is also free from self-aggrandizement and assertions of academic freedom. Never is an object or a grave described as too beautiful to resist. A variety of interpretations and viewpoints are presented. The article closes with an optimism for the future of ethical archaeological research. Raff says, “It is important that geneticists work with Indigenous communities to ensure that the quest for genetic knowledge does not perpetuate further harms” (2021). I agree, and archaeology’s best work embodies this principle.


Bourque, Bruce. “The Campaign to Thwart Paleogenetic Research Into North America’s Indigenous Peoples.” Quillette, March 29, 2021.

Bower, Bruce. “DNA Resolves Kennewick Man Debate: Ancient Skeleton Closely Related to Modern Native Americans.” Science News, July 25, 2015.

Kaestle, Frederika A., and K. Ann Horsburgh. “Ancient DNA in Anthropology: Methods, Applications, and Ethics.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 119, no. S35 (2002): 92–130.

Moon, Margaret R. “The History and Role of Institutional Review Boards: A Useful Tension.” AMA Journal of Ethics 11, no. 4 (April 1, 2009): 311–16.

Nelson, Cary. “Defining Academic Freedom.” Inside Higher Ed, December 10, 2010.

Raff, Jennifer (2021). “Genomes Reveal Humanity’s Journey into the Americas.” Scientific American.

Rasmussen, Morten, Martin Sikora, Anders Albrechtsen, Thorfinn Sand Korneliussen, J. Víctor Moreno-Mayar, G. David Poznik, Christoph P. E. Zollikofer, et al. “The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man.” Nature 523, no. 7561 (July 2015): 455–58.

Weiss, Elizabeth. “Academic Freedom and Native American Reburials.” Areo, March 31, 2021.