Native Tribes and Microbes:
A Love-Hate Relationship
Microbes are famous for causing harm to Native American tribes. When the first Europeans came to the shores of North America they brought with them syphilis and other diseases that the natives had never been exposed to before. Because the native people had never acquired immunity to these diseases, their introduction was much more devastating than any army could be to the native populations.
These days, however, microbes are restoring their reputation by helping anthropologists restore native artifacts and return them to the tribes to which they belong.
Mercury poisoning could be a
result of the repatriation of
Native American artifacts.
Before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), all artifacts of native origin were considered the property of the United States government, and were therefore placed in museums for the general population to view. Part of the preparation for these artifacts, which were often made of natural and perishable material, was to soak them in pesticides and heavy metals to preserve them. This was done with the belief that they would be safely behind glass, never to touch another human who wasn’t properly gowned and protected.
However, once NAGPRA was put into effect, these artifacts became the property of the tribes who created them. Beautiful feathered headdresses, hand axes, baskets, and more were being reclaimed by tribes across the country and used in the rituals and dances.
Unfortunately, they also brought with them mercury and arsenic that had been used to preserve them. The headdresses and masks exposed eyes, noses, and faces to those harmful preservatives, while axes and baskets allowed exposure to foods and hands. Because mercury can be readily absorbed through bare skin, this can lead to symptoms such as mild skin irritation, discoloration and peeling, or major health problems like kidney failure.
However, anthropologists have found a new solution to this politically charged problem. Some marine bacteria have the capability to digest mercury, turning it into a gas and leaving the artifact clean and safe for human use.
Traditionally found on the Indian coast, these microorganisms have been used in the industrial community to clean spills and manage waste. Over the past ten years, they have also been studied as a potential way to clean artifacts. This method has a lower cost and a higher efficiency than other methods of removing the heavy metals.
Bacteria have the
Six strains of
, three of
, and one
, among others, are being tested. A mercury-resistant plasmid present in these strains, discovered in 1972, confers the ability to create a volatile form of mercury, which is soluble in organic solvents when exposed to HgCl2.
This new application of bio-remediation is a cheap and effective way for anthropologists to safely return artifacts to the tribes of origin. Breathing new life into old traditions by returning artifacts to native tribes will restore the microbes’ reputation in this chapter of history.