(Originally posted by Pat on 4/1/10)
The biological anthropology department at the University of Michigan
has been compelled to return thousands of unidentifiable human remains
to the locations from which they were excavated. You can read more about
this at Ann Arbor.com.
I had meant to blog about this when I first read the Ann Arbor.com article, but the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.
the media, this story is being told entirely from one side: "Native
Americans want the bones of their ancestors back, the big bad University
doesn't want to give them back, but finally they are being forced to do
so." This is a simple and morally impassioned argument---it's also
of the people demanding the return of the bones are not Native
Americans, and very few have any affiliation with the relevant tribes.
The original source of the pressure appears to have been this online petition---and
we all know how reliable and carefully fact-checked online petitions
are. I glanced through and saw at least three names that were repeated
twice. (So, apparently online petitions will convince the University to
return bones, but not networks to resume the show Firefly. Interesting.)
It's important to realize, furthermore, that these are unidentifiable human
remains. Identifiable remains---those that can be reliably associated
with a particular individual---are already covered under existing
policies. The University cannot steal your grandfather's bones, for the
mere fact that we know they are your grandfather's bones protects them.
All we know about these bones is that they are Homo sapiens and that they came from particular excavation sites.
fact, even if the University could steal my grandfather's bones, I'm
not sure that would upset me very much. I have no use for them besides a
symbolic value of remembrance which I could just as well obtain through
a photograph. They might actually be useful for research that could
accomplish something far more important.
Indeed, some of the bones
that are being returned are so old (we know this by carbon dating and
such) that they cannot possibly have come from anyone that any living
Native American could possibly have known or even have records of. This
is particularly true because nearly all Native American tribes lack a
written language and almost none of them keep track of genealogy more
precisely than two generations of parenthood and tribal affiliation.
Moreover, matrilineal inheritance, while easy to keep track of, is
genetically almost meaningless. My mitochondrial DNA is from the Ojibwe!
(True fact. In fact I have enough blood quantum to register as Native
American if I choose.) Except that it's really from various Japanese
populations, who are ultimately from Africa like everyone else.
I am inclined to think that this decision has nothing to do with any
legitimate personal or public interest in returning ancestral remains,
but rather represents a triumph of cultural anthropology over biological
anthropology and perhaps even of religion over science. By using the
rhetoric of "preserving cultures" and "returning our grandfather's
bones", petitioners have managed to undermine legitimate and useful
scientific research. We are still far too used to talking about human
bones as if they have some magical properties that make them sacred---they are chunks of calcium!
They retain some semblance of the structure they once had, which is why
they are useful in research; but they retain nothing of the life they
once supported. The people they once comprised are long-since destroyed.
My grandfather is dead, and will remain dead, regardless of what I do
with "his bones" (or rather the bones of which he was once made).
continually amazes me, actually, how much otherwise useful arable land
is wasted on graveyards. It could be farms, or forests! I agree that we
should have some sort of system of memorials for our dead loved-ones,
but there is no reason this needs to involve the actual remains of the
deceased. In fact I've always found the Vietnam Memorial and the stars
on the wall of the CIA HQ lobby far more poignant than any graveyard.
Graveyards say "Behold, dead people"; but everyone dies. Good memorials
say, "Behold, the folly of war." We could also have some sort of
memorial chart of everyone who has died in automobile
accidents---"Behold, the folly of the automobile"---or of complications
due to tobacco and alcohol---"Behold, the folly of intoxication". But
instead we bury everyone the same way regardless of how they died.
Japanese, actually, are one of the first cultures to stop doing this.
This is probably because they literally are running out of land, and
have had to build golf courses on rooftops and extend the land to fit
new airstrips. Cremation is now virtually universal, and people keep the
remains of their loved ones in urns rather than plots. (I hate to break
it to them that by the time you burn a body to ashes, there is pretty
much nothing left. At least bones are typically recognizable as the same individual.)
all, while I see why people were so eager to return these bones, I
think it was a mistake to give in to this pressure. Valuable research
may have been squandered for negligible gains.