The (Un)Settling of America: Science and the Search for the First Americans

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Virginia Tech


The practice of science in the search for the First Americans is a flawed endeavor. Not only is science constrained by the shifting centers of cultural power external to science, but also by the institutions, elites, and cognitive values internal to science. Substantive disagreement over a cultural past is a reflection of unstabilized power relationships in the present. Although science traditionally is believed to speak truth to governmental power, federal law dictates that American Indian traditions hold an epistemological status equal to the methods of science when determining the cultural affiliation of, and access to, pre-European human remains. Consequently, discovery and examination of the most important First American artifacts occur only as a product of a negotiation between scientists and the very groups that frequently oppose them.

This is a case study of the practice of science in its search for the First Americans in this unstable environment. This dissertation deconstructs: (1) the conflicts between the methods of science and the traditional beliefs of modern American Indians; (2) the power struggles for primacy of place internal to the sciences themselves; and (3) the interactions with external authorities such as government agencies, the press, universities, and museums. It is an examination into how the issues have been defined and how differences in cultural myths, scientific theories, research methodologies and public policy remain unsettled in modern America. It is an investigation of the blurred boundaries between science and myth as well as between fact and theory that ultimately weaken the credibility of science as a cultural mechanism for interpreting the natural world. Finally, this dissertation concludes that the absence of a firm American cultural ground upon which to place an epistemological fulcrum has greatly contributed not only to the First American identity search remaining unresolved, but also to the instability of the very science which is conducting the search.



science, myth, first Americans, anthropology, archaeology