Wednesday, November 28, 2012

We are giving back the bones

(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
I had meant to blog about this when I first read the Ann article, but the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.
In 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 mostly wrong.

Most 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.
In 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.
Ultimately, 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).
It 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.
The 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.)
In 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.

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