Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cultural Affiliation, Genetic Material, and Indigenous Peoples: What Can We Learn?

The use of genetic material has been a major source of new information in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, ethnic studies, geography, and many others. Through the use of genetic material, researchers have been able to examine the history of human migration around the world through both time and space. Unlike archaeology, which relies on artifacts and other items left behind by humans, the genetic material points to actual individuals, not simply parts of a culture that may no longer exist. However, there has been one area in which genetic studies have actually clouded the picture of human history, rather then shedding any light. This is in terms of cultural affiliation. Because genetic material does not point to cultural manifestations, but rather individuals in time and space, it is unable to tell us little about the culture of the individual whose genetic material is being studied.

Now, this is not a problem if the individual whose genetic material under study is alive. One can simply ask them about their cultural affiliation. However, in terms of indigenous peoples, more is at stake. What is at stake are claims of ancestry, land rights, self-determination rights, and much more. The famous Kennewick Man case was about this very issue. In fact, I have two books on the topic (here, and here).

The real question is, therefore, what can genetic studies tell us about contemporary indigenous peoples and their ancestry? One example of what we can learn I discussed in terms of the indigenous peoples of the Andes and the use of mitochondrial DNA for determining cultural affiliation (the article can be found here). Another example comes from a recent study by Bolnick and Smith (American Antiquity 72(4):627-644), in which they conclude that "The pattern of mtDNA variation at this site suggests that matrilineal relationships did not strongly influence burial practices." The authors were studying the Klunk Mound Group in Illinois, looking at burial patterns and the sites overall relation to the famous Native American Hopewell Moundbuilders. The really interesting point is that in this case the genetic material tells us nothing about the culture of the people associated with the Klunk Mound Group. This is because they used mtDNA, which is only transferred from mother to daughter, but because the Native American people of the Klunk Mound didn't necessarily practice matrilineal burial practices, we can discern little. We do know that they didn't practice matrilineal burial practices, but beyond that, we are unable to determine much else regarding the culture and the affiliation of those associated with the culture.

So what this tells us is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to use genetic material to determine cultural affiliation. Because cultures are defined largely on what they leave behind, at least archaeologically, it is very difficult to match the culture with a genetic population (because the genetic population is defined on gene allele profiles, not cultural items). Thus, although molecular genetic studies may give us some key insights into populations in history, trying to link those populations to a culture must be done with the utmost caution, and with collaborating evidence, including archaeology, ethnography, linguistics, and oral traditions.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Native Title Claims and Australian Indigenous Aboriginal People

The process of globalization has had a large impact on indigenous peoples throughout the world, from impacts in terms of natural resources to self-determination and social justice issues. How indigenous peoples are able to mitigate some of these impacts is an important topic, one that many social scientists have been working on for a number of years. A colleague of mine, Mary Edmunds has been working extensively in Australia on resolving land disputes between the Native Australian Aborigines, the government, and large corporations. In a recent article she wrote (Anthropology News 48), she outlines several of the key points concerning the indigenous peoples of Australia (Aborigines) and land dispute issues.

Historically, conflict and its management were defined within a way of life based on local and small-scale groups structured by family and densely related kinship networks. This is no longer the case, as now intermediaries are emerging at the intersection of modern resource development and the Australian legal system, one that allows the indigenous peoples of Australia the right to negotiate claims of Native title to Australia's lands. One case is that of the Pilbara Aboriginal people.

The Pilbara Aboriginal people's major experience with global forces began in the 1960s with the development of iron-ore mining. Within a decade, ten new towns, four new railways, hundreds of miles of roads, power lines, and pipelines, along with three new deepwater ports were all built in Pilbara traditional lands. In giving the Aboriginal people some semblance of voice in the face of such change, Australia allows Native title via the common law system.

The first case (Mabo v. Queensland) was the first example of recognition of Native title by Australia's common law system. Australia's Native Title Act followed at the end of 1993. This allows indigenous peoples to make application for their Native title to be legally recognized on the basis of traditional law and custom. It also provides for a threshold test to be applied for Native title applications to be registered with the National Native Title Tribunal. In between making an application and a successful Native title claim - often a period of over a decade - Australian Aborigines have the right to negotiate over developments on the area of their claim. The Pilbara Aboriginal people are now using this legal claim system to mitigate future impacts to their traditional homeland.

This is quite an innovative and humane way to go about this. It allows a voice for the indigenous peoples of Australia in matters concerning their traditional resources and homeland. So, just because the Aboriginal group may not have Native title over a piece of land at a certain point in time, companies must still consult and listen to the indigenous peoples, for they have the "right to negotiate." In the United States, sadly, this is not the same. Native Americans have the right to negotiate as a environmental justice population if the development is going to impact them directly, but if it is taking place on their traditional lands (and they do not have any treaty rights over those lands), they can largely be excluded from the process.

Australia has a very poor track record when it comes to dealing with the indigenous Aboriginal people, but here is an example of a positive step in the right direction. Aboriginal people should be given an equal voice in all impacts affecting traditional homelands and resources. The Native Title Act of 1993 is a small step in this direction.

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