Dinosaurs, Eugenics, and Collapse: Indigenous Erasure in Natural History

Indigenous is a misnomer. We are family members, clans, nations, and relatives. We know each other by relation to one another. We have stories about ourselves and the animals and the creatures that no longer live on the planet. This knowledge, this sense of place-based understanding, was denied throughout .

For many Indigenous peoples, natural history reads like the history of some unknown universe—some planet of landscapes and monsters with Greek or Latin names. The Eurocentrism of the narrative is not lost on us. The ancient world was carved out in languages foreign to Indigenous nations and repeated the West’s own mythology about itself as the source of knowledge and civilization. Such conceptual colonialism creeps into everyday sciences, especially the natural sciences, where Indigenous people play Tonto-like roles to the real work done by Lone Ranger scientists. We are a people without history for a natural history without Indigenous peoples.

This essay explores the ways in which ancient history and the dystopic future are predicated on Indigenous erasure. Indigenous peoples are confined to the past, yet absent from it. In some cases, we are not possessors of the continent, but responsible for the extinction of ancient mammals such as the woolly mammoth or giant sloth. In natural history, Indigenous people appear to fill in gaps when describing the ancient world but disappear just in time for settlement and discovery.

Take the knowledge about the Dilophosaurus, a dinosaur found in 1940 within the Navajo Nation by Jesse Williams, a Diné man from Tuba City. Williams must have known that what he found was significant. He talked about it with neighbors. So much so that a local trader had heard about it and told a Berkeley paleontologist in the area.

Two years later, the paleontologist excavated the remains of the animal and took credit for the discovery. He named the dinosaur Dilophosaurus wetherilli, wetherilli a Latinization of a white trader who made his living selling goods to Diné people. The Diné man who actually found the skeleton was included only in the folklore retelling of the discovery and not given any credit for it. He wasn’t mentioned in the journal article announcing the dinosaur to the paleontology community in 1954, not even as a footnote.

In her 2005 book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, folklorist Adrienne Mayor documents this history of scientific colonialism and Indigenous narratives about the ancient world. She writes that Indigenous peoples were the first to find mammoth bones in North America, showing them to French traders in the 1760s, who instantly took credit for the discovery. The Indigenous peoples who brought them the bones were dismissed as savages, without even their tribal affiliations recorded. This is why I have to refer to them here using the generic category “Indigenous” and not by the tribal name, or by using the names of the specific individuals involved in the exchange of knowledge.

In 1998, five years after Jurassic Park made the Dilophosaurus world famous, Arizona passed a law to name the Dilophosaurus one of two official “state dinosaurs.” The conversation about what should be the state dinosaur was both ridiculous and at times xenophobic. Some noted that Dilophosaurus skeletons were found in China and so were obviously not limited to the territorial claims of Arizona.

Importantly, the controversy provoked Diné people to start talking about the injustice of paleontology more generally, and, in particular, how the skeleton was removed from Diné lands without permission or cultural consideration. Bessie Yellowhair, today a tribal official, told the Arizona Republic that the removal of the Dilophosaurus from the Navajo Nation “violated Navajo sovereignty and property rights.”

To this day, Berkeley contends it had proper research clearance. But at the time of the initial discovery in the 1940s, the Navajo Nation lacked sufficient regulation over research on the reservation. This would not change until the 1990s, when the Navajo Nation created a human subjects review board and a historic preservation office to oversee research conducted within the reservation—research that belongs to the Navajo Nation and Diné people. The Berkeley paleontologists took advantage of the colonial situation to get at well-known geological formations and hunt for ancient skeletons—skeletons that have meaning in Diné history and cosmology.

Too often and too easily Indigeneity is reduced to a simplified monolith. Generations of social change, cultural advancements, scientific understandings, and political developments among diverse and different nations are denied. Our bodies and beliefs are only useful as background information.

Take for example a 2018 article in Science Advances, “Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America.” In this article, the authors rely on an overtly racist 1933 study of Pueblo Indians by eugenicist and founder of physical anthropology Aleš Hrdlička to estimate the height of people who made the tracks near a giant sloth in ancient times. Hrdlička is notorious for his support of eugenics as a science, infusing his racial theory in how he approached his anthropology. He believed central Europe was the center of human evolution and he threated Indigenous peoples like objects.

The Hrdlička study was a catalog of body measurements, skull shapes, observable physiques, skin tone, nose shapes, hair coarseness, teeth size, and so forth. These were classic markers of eugenicist research that informed racist theories of human evolution.

Hrdlička treated Indigenous peoples as objects and not humans. In 1904 he convinced the Mexican Army, after they killed Yaqui men, women, and children, that he should be allowed to collect some of the victims as specimens to study. He took the bodies to the archives of the National Museum in Washington D.C. It was more than a hundred years before descendants of the murdered were able to get the bodies back to Yaqui lands in Mexico for a proper burial.

Although Hrdlička opposed Nazism, he was also a white supremist who said late in life that the Soviet Union was the “the last great biological reserve of the white race.”

When archeologists today use Hrdlička’s racist and intrusive biophysical research to inform their understanding of the ancient past, the biopolitics of race is renewed in the hidden form of data buried in footnotes and methodologies despite what is known of the researcher’s methods and biases.

In her landmark book The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, Paulette F. C. Steeves writes that archeologists use “Clovis culture” to homogenize various cultures and tribes throughout the continents into one people and to limit their time on this side of the planet, to suggest Indigenous peoples can’t be in North or South America before a certain date. She notes archeologists rarely insist on this kind of dogma when looking at Western Europe.

When we think of Indigenous peoples in natural history, our stories are ignored, marginalized, or appropriated in the form of “traditional ecological knowledge,” as something supporting and not fundamentally challenging Western epistemology. The explanations of Indigenous people offered in the biological and social sciences work to erase Indigenous histories, philosophies, and politics. We are rendered objects and not people, to be studied and not considered.

In environmental sciences, Indigenous peoples are shaped by the land as a warning of potential “collapse.” In our final example, geographer Jared Diamond argues that Anasazi people over exploited natural resources and therefore their society imploded. This is crude environmental determinism that reflects US climate anxiety more than an accurate history of Indigenous peoples in the southwest. Anasazi people didn’t disappear; their descendants are among the Isleta, Acoma, Hopi, or even Diné people who still live in the region.

In this era of cenes, climate change, and exclusionary epistemologies, how do we account for temporal injustices that are inherent in the practice of natural history? In a forthcoming paper, Sara Smith and I argue that -cenes remain Eurocentric and exclude Black and Indigenous epistemologies and temporalities.

To decolonize natural history is to fundamentally challenge and expand upon what we consider “natural” and “historical.” One approach is to center Indigenous narratives and recognize Western mythologies when we see them. When scholars homogenize Indigenous experiences or cultures, or act as if we were incapable of understanding the ancient world, they are perpetuating epistemic racism and colonialism.


Cover image: Picture taken by author at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson Arizona.

Andrew Curley

Andrew Curley (Diné) is an assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona. Curley’s research focuses on the everyday incorporation of Indigenous nations into colonial economies. Building on ethnographic research, his publications speak to how Indigenous communities understand coal, energy, land, water, infrastructure, and development in an era of energy transition and climate change.