Highlights from the Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi Project

Screenshot from the online document about Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, showing his iron-bladed “man’s tool”, and a small copper bead found with the body. Source: Royal BC Museum.

[Edit Nov 2017: The Book is now available, also through Amazon, etc.]

Many readers of this ever-more occasional blog will be aware of the exciting and profound discovery in 1999 of the well-preserved remains of a young man frozen in a glacier in Northwestern British Columbia.  Found within the traditional territory of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation, the man was given the name Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, or “Long Ago Person Found.”  In the spirit of discovering what messages from the past that Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi might bearing, a remarkable collaborative research project was commenced. Results of this study have been presented at numerous conferences and in the scientific literature, but a landmark event hopefully just around the corner is the publication of a book recounting all the cultural and scientific knowledge borne into the present by this unfortunate young man.

While we wait for the book, it is very exciting to see that the Royal BC Museum has made a non-technical, well-illustrated overview document online which tells the main threads of the story of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi. (edit, try this link instead, RBCM seems to have killed this document?)

The document can’t be downloaded, but it does open in a beautiful full-screen mode and at almost 60 pages, it’s a short book in its own right.   The uploaded document appears to draw out significant highlights from all aspects of the research with which I am familiar, and in a sense can probably be seen as an outline of the book as a whole.  I hear that the final book will be aimed at a lower undergraduate level, and that there may be dozens of separate chapters by around seventy different authors. [Update: the linked document now contains a Table of Contents for the forthcoming book, starting on Page 59.)

While comparisons to “Ötzi“, the frozen man found in the Tyrolean Alps, are inevitable, it is my firm belief that when readers are able to see the profound connections formed between Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, descendent communities, and researchers, then they will see a sort of transcendent alteration of social relations in the present which Ötzi, for all his deserved notoriety, has never really achieved.

Kudos to the Royal BC Museum for making this document available, and to the authors, researchers, other institutions, and above all, the community members who have worked so hard for over a decade to allow the faint voice of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi to be heard.  In particular, the online document is written by Richard Hebda, Sheila Greer and Alexander Mackie.

It’s very exciting to think of the book being out sometime soon-ish, I’ll definitely make a post about it when the time comes!

Screenshot of the online book, showing details of the gopher skin robe Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi was wearing at the time of his death. Source: Royal BC Museum.

21 responses to “Highlights from the Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi Project

  1. Excellent! Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Quentin. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the book since the extensive presentations and discussion of the volume at the NWAC conference in Victoria in 2008. This is a good fix in the interim.


  2. Thank you for featuring this publication, and for your kind words about its content. There is a revised version in the works that is scheduled to appear in a few days.

    One of the revisions affects the page you have presented here – the credits for the x-ray image will be changed to read: “© All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the Canadian Conservation Institute of the Department of Canadian Heritage, 2012.”

    Also, a list of papers and their authors from which these Highlights were digested will be added. Several other relatively minor changes will be made as well, including the addition of some photos for which there is now permission to publish in this form.

    The revisions should also include version history, so check back in a while to see if there is a new version.


  3. Fantastic stuff!


  4. Really quite encouraging to see this. Thank you.


  5. Awesome post and the book looks great. But I wonder about this bit:

    “While comparisons to “Ötzi“, the frozen man found in the Tyrolean Alps, are inevitable, it is my firm belief that when readers are able to see the profound connections formed between Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, descendent communities, and researchers, then they will see a sort of transcendent alteration of social relations in the present which Ötzi, for all his deserved notoriety, has never really achieved.”

    Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi might seem more relevant because he is more recent, the connection more tangible. I’m sure those from where Otzi was found feel similar connections in a more distant way.


  6. Hi Greg
    Thanks for your comment.
    A community DNA study found that Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi had, I think, 18 living people with whom he shared a common ancestor. Through this it was able to be shown which clan he had belonged to. This allowed the traditional practice of the opposite clan (technically, moiety) to conduct his funerary rites. This is a pretty immediate connection to the community, allowing spiritual closure for Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi and the community. Further, by bringing together many Tribes and First Nations from across borders, Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, himself a multi-cultural, multi-sited individual (as known through the forensic analysis), “sense” could perhaps be made of why he came back: to bring the Yukon, BC and Alaska nations back together. (The above commentary is from memory, from a public lecture at the NW Anthropology conference – I don’t presume to read the minds of all First Nations! And neither did the speaker.)

    I don’t want to belittle the connection local people might feel to Otzi. But the fact remains, his body has been subjected to a whole suite of public indignities including being widely displayed through photographs and has entered popular culture almost as a logo (e.g., Brad Pitt). Note that there has never been, nor will there be, any public display including photographs of KDT. From a distance, it appears people think Otzi is cool, and scientifically interesting, but I am not seeing the same degree of even local sense of profound connection including spiritual connection. Curiosity, yes. “Pride”, perhaps too.

    But I’d be really interested in finding out otherwise and will happily retract my comments if wrong.

    Thanks again for your comment.


  7. The new book is eagerly awaited!

    Wan’t Ötzi found to have relatives only on Sardinia or Malta or some other Mediterranean island, but not in the Alps? Europe has been a profoundly migratory place for thousands of years, so perhaps that is not unexpected. My impression from the various programs I’ve seen on Ötzi was that people throughout Europe felt a great sense of connection. I know I personally felt a significant jolt when I saw one of the bog bodies displayed at the British Museum and thought I recognized the same nose that runs in my father’s family. It would be interesting to see if DNA showed a genetic connection; and I also realize I’d never have felt that degree of connection without the public display of my possible ancestor.


  8. Great points Morley. It’s an interesting question, to display these people or not. Again, Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi being more recent is an issue, to actually have known living relatives! Of course out of respect for them he should not be put on public display. But that also in a way disconnects him from the public at large. Anyway, thanks qmackie for your response and for generating such a fascinating discussion.


  9. Morley: I’m sure I’ve seen your own nose immersed in peat-rich water on more than one occasion, though that would only have been 12 or 16 years old.

    Greg, Morley – I agree the display of the bodies does enhance a certain morbid fascination, but I wonder if it is not closer to a gawk-worthy sideshow display than anything else. But such a different cross-cultural landscape there in Europe, where there is rather little concern for, say, even an Iron Age cemetery being dug up – respect for the dead is certainly put at a lower value (or not even considered) in comparison to the asserted investigatory rights of Science, display rights of museums, and gawking rights of Joe Public.

    By the way, I hear that the online document has been updated, with the main addition, starting on page 59, being the Table of Contents for the whole forthcoming book. This gives a good sense of the scope of the book. Now all they need is to add a “pre-order this book on Amazon” button and they’d be set!


  10. In regards to the Otzi comparison, I think that you are talking apples and oranges. You are basing your belief in a distinct difference in the connection between the ancient peoples and the modern descendents on how the modern descendents treat the ancient body. It doesn’t seem right to say that there is somehow less of a connection because Europeans have displayed, dismantled, etc. Otzi. It is a different cultural perspective. There are few Europeans who have the same set of cultural values as those of First Nations.

    I think that a better comparison would be drawn to actually look into the intense controversy that surrounded Otzi. Italy and Austria fought bitterly in regards to if Otzi was “Italian” or “Austrian.” It seems a bit ridiculous for us to project these modern nation states into the distant past, but nevertheless, there was a connection that was felt by Europeans.

    I think by takling in terms of “profound connection” or “spiritual connection”, you are going to exclude Otzi right away because the “connection” of which you speak is a cultural belief system shared by First Nations and not by Europeans.

    Now, this is not to say that both finds are not very fascinating. They are. This is also not to say that both find didn’t raise many questions in the present. They did. And, this is definitely not to take anything away from this amazing project that seems to have showed how peoples from differing cultural belief systems can come together to create something wonderful that shows respect to both of these systems and to the ancestor as well. It definitely did!


  11. qmackie, i don’t think it’s necessarily an issue of morbid fascination or gawkworhtiness, the power of observation is not exclusive to the trained eye. And I don’t think there is any less respect for the dead in Europe. You can read about something, and then see it and understand it better. That’s why we have museums. But I respect the beliefs of the relatives of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi — I wouldn’t want them looking at the bones of my great great grandfather either!


    • Greg – I have to disagree about the level and type of respect shown to the dead by many European cultures vs at least some of the Indigenous cultures in this area, and even the settler communities in western Canada.

      I have worked as an archaeologist with human remains in Europe as well as western North America and there is a very real difference. Yes, there are similarities – there can be local restrictions in the UK on uncovering of human remains overnight (but these arise from fear of lingering disease), there are requirements that all human remains (regardless of date or religion) be given a Christian reburial (except that in the interests of science a permit can be issued to keep them indefinitely in a museum).

      While I was in London there were thousands and thousands of human remains being excavated dating from the neolithic through to the late 1900s. Churches were emptying crypts so they could use them for offices, or food banks or revenue sources. Many buildings were being taken down only to find old cemeteries under them, which were ruthlessly excavated and removed. If they were not of archaeological interest (anything more recent than mid 1600’s usually) then commercial companies that specialised in the removal of bodies (yes, there are several of these) would work with a backhoe, which heaped the bones on a pile of dirt and the bones that fell to the bottom of the pile were bagged up. They were paid by the number of bags of bones collected, and the ignorant young men that did the work packed the bags with horse and cow bones and any other bone that would help their quota, and that is how they were reburied in some distant cemetery – disrespectful to the dead that were being disinterred and to the other occupants in the new cemeteries that might have, in life, objected strongly to being buried next to a grave containing amongst other species and for instance, pig bones.

      Cemeteries in the outksirts of London were having their headstones removed and a deep layer of fill spread over acres of cemetery so that another layer of bodies could be put in, with no apparent way for the descendents of the lower layer to know where their ancestors were buried, or to honour their graves. But, that was better than some Italian cemeteries where your body would only stay in the ground for about 15-20 years before the space was needed for the next person and your bones would be hoiked out of the ground, probably still greasy and smelly.

      Human remains are on public display all over the place. And scientists and the permit issuers and even the church thinks its OK for someone to search for the grave of a famous person in order to dig it up (often out of a church floor/crypt) to see what the person died of, all in the interests of prurient curiosity but with no truely legitimate purpose. Surely it is profoundly disrespectful to remove a body from sanctified ground for such reasons (unless perhaps the person in life would have expected or approved of such scientific endeavour?).

      These cultural values in small crowded European countries with millions of skeletons in the ground, and emerging from the ground daily, are quite different than Euro-Canadian values and I believe the frequency of their occurence and the necessity to dig them up in the crowded places desensitizes people to cultural values which may exist in theory, but are much diluted in practice. In the more open spaces of North America we can afford a less pragmatic and more idealistic treatment of the dead.

      It’s no wonder that Indigenous peoples can have such a difficult time dealing with the settler communities on this matter as the cultural values are so widely separated.

      Now that I have used so many words to make a pretty simple point, I think I need a drink, and a good murder mystery.


  12. One of the underspoken issues here is that Otzi was European and was studied by Europeans whereas with the KTD project there is a cross cultural dimension that makes it all the more critical that the work was respectful and considerate of cultural differences, particularly in light of the historical legacy of racist and utterly intrusive investigative research of aboriginal peoples by non aboriginal peoples over the past couple centuries.

    While this latter sentiment may seem like a thing of the past, it is still pervasive in North America and was recently given renewed prominence in the high profile journal ‘Science’ which choose to publish a letter scientifically attacking both the University of California and a Native American tribe over their supposed right to conduct a destructive study of aboriginal human remains from southern California. The letter’s authors specifically claimed that: “the University of California favors the ideology of a local American Indian group over the legitimacy of science.”

    In contrast to this openly combative, dismissive, and power-laden approach, the KDT project serves as a critically important counter-example – a cooperative, and collaborative project investigating an indigenous peoples history by asking questions that emerge from an engaged conversation and comprehensive research effort with *(rather than against)* indigenous peoples.

    Schoeninger, Margaret J., Jeffrey L. Bada, Patricia M. Masters, Robert L. Bettinger and Tim D. White (2011) Unexamined Bodies of Evidence. Science 332(May 20):916.


  13. Exactly, Iain! You put my thoughts into words that I hadn’t got to! KDS was such a fantastic example of cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect; in stark contrast to the Kennewick debacle in the US not much earlier.


  14. Well, the debacle in the US about Kennewick man illustrates the much deeper ramifications of something dramatic and not so recent at all. That’s what I was trying to say in my initial response to qmackie, a lot of this is an issue of time. The recent nature of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi and his direct connections to living people makes comparisons difficult, to Oetzi, and Kennewick man. It also makes what we learned from Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnch perhaps less revealing — at least in terms of, for example, the peopling of the North America. The cross-cultural understanding in the case of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnch is largely a direct result of his recency. But, having said that, I agree, everything twoeyes said is spot on.


  15. Greg – not sure I can agree with all of this either. The relationship on the Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi project commenced right at the beginning before there were any firm indications of age. The possibility that this was a 10,000 year old body was widely discussed in the media even while the different parties were forming their relationship and figuring out how the project might go, and such decisions were settled before the first radiocarbon dates on artifacts came back.

    And with Kennewick man, in my opinion one of the first places in the process that the project went seriously wrong was the mis-idenification of the skeleton as non-Native. This led to a lack of consultation prior to a number of studies being conducted. During all of this time the skeleton was treated in a manner acceptable to science, but not necessarily to local Indigenous peoples. It was only when the age of the skeleton became known after radiocarbon dating and other tests had been done were the local Tribes consulted. The relationships on that project got off to a very bad start as a result.

    So, I don’t think it can be said with any certainty (from these examples) that there is a correlation between how recent human remains are and the likelihood for cross-cultural understanding.


  16. No doubt, the situation with Kennewick Man was muddled from the start, and the understanding demonstrated in the case of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnch is indeed a remarkable example of how such delicate processes should work.


  17. Interesting discussion of the issue of whether the age of remains should figure in how they are treated in this story from the WSU magazine awhile back on the reburial of very old bones from the Marmes rockshelter. http://wsm.wsu.edu/s/index.php?id=161


    • Greg, thanks for posting this great link! where I found my new favorite quote of the moment by Gary Wessen: “Archaeological resources come closer to being magical than anything else in my existence. Archaeological sites have a real time-transcendent quality. The first director of the [Makah] museum likes to say Ozette is his book. And books can talk to us.
      “But I like to [say] archaeological sites are better than books. If we’re smart, we can have a dialogue with the past.”


  18. twoeyes, I paused on that quote too. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or heard the fascination lots of us feel about archaeology articulated so well.


  19. Hi qmackie, I keep hoping that your “ever-more occasional ” blog will come back to life as it was very interesting and thought-provoking, not just for your articles but for the discussions and comments they set off. The thing on facebook doesnt fill the same need.


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