Scientists Contest Repatriation

Scientists Contest Repatriation

The arguments for repatriation were vigorously contested by those who argued that human remains are essential research material, and that such vital evidence should not be removed from museums, institutions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Strong counter-claims advanced the case that repatriation would mean a great loss to science. With powerful rhetoric, those resisting repatriation questioned the ownership and affiliation of the communities to the human remains, arguing that the removal of human remains for research would be deleterious to future generations of researchers of all nationalities, that it promoted identity politics that racializes peoples, and that it would destroy humanity’s historical knowledge. As we shall see, the interaction between campaigners for repatriation, and those contesting it, contributed to creating a number of oppositions. One, between science and the needs of communities; two, between the future potential of research versus the present needs of communities; three, between ignoring and endorsing the wrongs of colonization versus the possibility of making amends; four, between changing the law or not, and overall sharpening the central question of this debate: who decides—scientists or disenfranchised communities?

While those resisting the claims for repatriation initially included members of the museum, archaeological and anthropological disciplines and professions, by the late 1990s the most vocal opponents were, primarily but not exclusively, scientists, anthropologists and archaeologists who use human remains in their research. However, despite concerted resistance to repatriation campaigners, in a relatively short space of time the arguments for research on human remains lost support. By the end of 2003, it became clear that the British government’s support was with repatriation campaigners, rather than with the scientists. A number of reports, policy and pieces of legislation were passed, signaling, in certain cases, that human remains would be returned to overseas indigenous communities, even when the remains were considered to hold a high research value. The activism of scientists in contesting the claims for repatriation was to hold little sway.


A central controversy in this debate in Australia and America has been around the question of who is considered related, or affiliated, to the remains. This was triggered in part by particular cases of the burial of ancient skeletons that, critics argued, could not be related to contemporary communities. The Kow Swamp collection of Pleistocene human remains from southeast Australia was one such case. In August 1990, the museum of Victoria presented to the Euchuca Aboriginal Cooperative the collection of human remains and grave goods from this area, aged between 9,000 and 15,000 years old, which were then buried. The prehistorian DJ Mulvaney launched a critique of this action in the journal Antiquity:

Archaeologists support the return of remains from recent generations to local communities for reburial, because social and spiritual factors outweigh other factors. The Kow Swamp bones, however, are rare survivals from the millions of burials which have occurred and vanished across the past 15,000. Their kin cannot be presumed to have shared the same cultural values or religious concepts of this generation. Neither can a few people ‘own’ them in the sense of being free to destroy them. (Mulvaney 1991: 16)

Mulvaney was one of many vocal opponents who argued that it is not possible to credit a relationship between people of today and human remains from hundreds of years ago. Mulvaney argued, in the same article, that even if a relationship could be traced, the variability of beliefs and cultural practices are too varied to hold any continuity, and that therefore such communities should not decide what happens to such ancient human remains.

In the previous chapter we saw how campaigners referred to the plight of Truganini, who functioned as an exemplar, her tale becoming symbolic of the decimation of the Tasmanian Aboriginals. For those resisting repatriation, the case of the Kennewick Man skeleton is used in a similar fashion to make a very different point: that present-day cultural groups have no claim on human remains, because they are too distant to be related. Kennewick Man is a human skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State, North America, in 1996. At first, it appeared to have more of a European than a Native American form, and anthropologists thought that it could be the remains of a nineteenth-century European settler. But, after radio-carbon testing, they realized the skeleton was over 9,000 years old.

In North America, under the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, ‘cultural affiliation’ is defined in the statute as ‘a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian and an identifiable earlier group.’1 This means that human remains more than 500 years old are considered ‘Native American’, and under the law, the affiliated tribes then decide what happens to them. Kennewick Man was taken into custody, pending a NAGPRA claim, by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the landowners of the site and the body mandated by the US government for dealing with these matters. Under its NAGPRA obligations, the army informed local Native American tribes with links to this area of land. The bones were claimed by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian reservation (comprising the Umatilla, the Naz Perce, the Colville, the Yakama, and the Wanapum), who insisted that there should be no study of the bones (Chatters 2002). What then followed was a high-profile and fractious legal battle, lasting eight years, between anthropologists wanting to study the skeleton and the tribes wishing to bury Kennewick Man. Those wanting to study the skeleton questioned whether remains this old could be considered Native American or associated with any modern people. In February 2004, after debates over affiliation, identity and ownership, an appeal court decided in favor of the scientists. A year later, the government permitted research to start. The case is evoked by those resisting repatriation to question the right of the tribes to decide the future of human remains that, it is argued, bear no relation to them.

Affiliation and the legitimacy of claims became focus of debate in Britain, where many queried the lineage or relationship of claims-making groups to human remains. Don Brothwell, Emeritus Professor in the Centre for Human Palaeoecology at the University of York, explained that genetic ties become watered down and shared between ethnic groups over generations. This means, he argued in a press release and in academic journals, that establishing the strength of a group’s claim for repatriation is complex, and likely to degenerate into political and religious wrangling (Brothwell 2004). As the biological anthropologist Marta Mirazón Lahr, director of Cambridge University’s Duckworth Laboratory, put it in an interview I conducted for an article for the website Open Democracy:

Claims for repatriation are based on ideas of biological and cultural descent, but human populations are not bounded entities through time, and biological and cultural ancestral affiliation are fluid concepts—who are the descendents of our Saxon skeletons, or Iron Age or Norman ones? (Mirazón Lahr, cited in Jenkins 2003)

Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, also questioned the link between present-day communities and the human remains they were claiming, when he commented on BBC News that it was important to be clear ‘about how closely a group needs to be related to the remains in order for a claim to become pre-eminent’. He continued:

It’s easy enough to see that a descendent or close relative can speak legitimately for the remains of a dead human being, and their views should in principle be pre-eminent. [ … ] But it’s more difficult when one starts to consider the position of groups that are more distantly related. Groups are made up of individuals and are not necessarily unanimous in their views, and more than one group can claim to speak for the same human remains.2

Sebastian Payne tried to separate the claims on ancient human remains from those that might apply to more recent people. In an article in Antiquity, he evoked the case of Kennewick Man to try to emphasize the distance between contemporary communities and ancient human remains:

[I]t seems to me that the recent repatriation to Tasmania of an individual whose identity was known, and who was killed less that 200 years ago, was almost certainly right [ … ] But that principle should not be extended unreasonably, as seems to have happened in the case of Kennewick Man. (Payne 2004: 420)

By arguing over the affiliation of ancient human remains, those resisting repatriation suggested that the remains under question were thousands of years old. But the majority of human remains that have been requested by community groups, from institutions in Britain, are between one and two hundred years old.

The response of those sympathetic to repatriation to the questioning of affiliation is revealing. They criticized the argument that no link over hundreds or thousands of years can be legitimate. Firstly, science can hardly claim to be the only truth, they posited. ‘It is simply incorrect’, argued David Hurst Thomas, anthropologist and author of Skull Wars, to assume that anthropologists are always objective: ‘Like it or not, the historical disciplines are the products of Western tradition, and even anthropologists, protest as they might, are the prisoners of their own cultural backgrounds.’ (Hurst Thomas 2000: 244) There are different approaches to lineage, which are equally valid, suggested the Human Remains Working Group Report:

[T]here is a risk that placing exclusive emphasis on close family and direct genealogical association fails to accord proper recognition to cultural diversity, by attaching predominant value to local or Western notions of kinship and insufficient value to other belief systems. (DCMS 2003b: 137)

Furthermore, argued those sympathetic to repatriation, lineage is unimportant. What needs to be considered is that indigenous groups’ cultural values have not been recognized and they have not had a voice in the writing of their histories. ‘It is about politics. The dispute is about control and power, not philosophy. Who gets to control ancient American history—governmental agencies, the academics community, or modern Indian people,’ declared Hurst Thomas (2005: 68). What matters, repatriation campaigners argued, is that the groups gain some kind of power or recognition and possible control over their pasts, rather than that they can prove a genetic or cultural relationship.

The Global History of Mankind

For many scientists the idea that the human remains belong to any one group, to the exclusion of others, is unscientific and morally wrong. ‘I explicitly assume that no living culture, religion, interest groups or biological population has any moral or legal right to the exclusive use or regulation of ancient human skeletons since all humans are members of a single species,’ Douglas Ubelaker, a bioarchaeologist from the Smithsonian Institute, argued. ‘Ancient skeletons are the remnants of unduplicable evolutionary events which all living and future peoples have the right to know about and understand. In other words, ancient human skeletons belong to everyone.’ (Ubelaker, cited in Turner 1986: 1).

Critics contesting the claims for repatriation questioned the idea that one community group should be able to decide the future of human remains. They tried to counterpoise these claims to the argument that human remains were owned by the whole of humanity, appealing to concepts of a universal and shared history. They refuted the charge of racism; indeed, they ventured, repatriation campaigners promote a racialized view of humanity, and it was the research on human remains that helped to dispel racist concepts of separate and fixed races. For Sebastian Payne, research on human remains countered racist thinking by telling us about the ‘shared past’ of human history and the relationships between peoples (Payne 2004: 419). Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and Leverhulme Professor of Human Evolution at the University of Cambridge, stated in the Observer newspaper that research on human remains would shed light on the whole of human history. Foley challenged the suggestion that collections were simply a result of colonization: ‘Nor is it fair to depict the Duckworth as a vast repository of colonial pillage: 7,000 of our remains are of ancient Egyptians and 5,000 are British. They are here for what they can tell us about human history.’ (Foley, cited in McKie 2003) Chris Stringer, a senior palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum, also disputed the inference that science permits or encouraged domination and racism, countering that it was research on human remains that led to insights about human evolution and which showed relationships and similarities between cultures, breaking down the notion of static and separate races (Stringer 2003a, Stringer 2003b). As Robert Foley asserted, in response to a comparison put forth by Jane Morris from the Museums Journal between human remains and the return of art looted by the Nazis:

I was disappointed that you linked the issue of skeletal collections to Nazi art loot. However, since you have made the comparison, let us remember that it was Nazi science that promoted the idea that cultures and their biology were all one. The scientific study of collections from around the world has dispelled that myth, and it would be sad to see it return in however well-intentioned a manner. (Morris and Foley 2002: 4–5)

Indeed, what is essential, argued Marta Mirazón Lahr in the Observer, is a diversity of material, so that scientists can compare and identify links and breakages: ‘if we lose our Australasian samples that will damage the collection irreparably’ (Lahr, cited in McKie 2003).

The archaeologist Laurajane Smith, based at the University of York, responded by arguing that researchers in the present may not have been involved in past colonization and domination, but that they still benefit from such practices. Not to acknowledge the wrongs of the past suggests that the research community sees itself as outside the consequences of colonial history. They must play a part in reparations, Smith argued, or they are complicit in past wrongs:

The retention of collections of Indigenous human remains by British institutions conveys a powerful symbolic message, however unintentional that may be. At best, the message that is conveyed is that the British community sees itself as positioned outside the consequences of its own colonial history, while at worst, it affirms the legitimacy of that history and the negative continuing consequences it has for Indigenous peoples and their campaigns for recognition and equity. (Smith 2004b: 408–409)

While Robert Foley and Chris Stringer questioned the implication that human remains in their collections were taken under dubious circumstances during the period of colonization, activists asserted that museums contained the bodies of people stolen under duress at the time of a great imbalance of power. Not to acknowledge this by removing human remains from collections would endorse this history and, they said, would have negative consequences.

The Loss to Science

In the 1990s, requests made to the British Museum and the Natural History Museum in London from activist groups supported by the Australian and New Zealand governments were refused by the trustees and directors, who cited the importance of the commitment of the institution to broad concepts of science and heritage (TAC 2001). Neil Chalmers, director of the Natural History Museum, stated that museums had:

A duty to the nation to retain those objects and we have a duty to the scientific international community to use them as a very valuable scientific resource. We would find it extremely difficult to return any such objects if there was any doubt at all about their continued safety and accessibility. (Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee 2000: § 162)

Robert Foley was quoted in the Observer claiming that, ‘the loss to science would be incalculable’, stressing that the potential loss due to the transfer of material that was valuable to science was so great it was impossible to estimate (Foley, cited in McKie 2003). In a comment piece in the Observer, Foley warned, ‘In Australia, skeletons that are older than the Flores pygmy have already been reburied and lost to science.’ (Foley, 2004) At the height of the debate, Chris Stringer vigorously defended his research on human remains, depicted as being under serious threat, in a similar fashion. In an article in the Telegraph newspaper, he warned of the loss of ‘ground-breaking research’. Stringer claimed that ‘[w]e could see whole fields closed off to research if we lose key specimens, not least the quest to understand our origins’, and explained that it was through the study of human remains that scientists ‘like me developed the “Out of Africa theory”’ (Stringer 2003a). Stringer criticized the decision to return the skeletons, quoted in the Independent newspaper as saying: ‘This is an important population in terms of human history. If the material goes back and is cremated it will be a loss for scientists and a loss for future generations of Tasmanians.’ (Stringer, cited in Connor, 2003) It is interesting to note that Stringer refers to the human remains as specimens and material, language that contrasts to how the activists, discussed in Chapter 1, describe human remains. Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Jane Morris refer to such material as ‘body parts’ or with terms such as ‘defleshed’. Stringer uses language that describes human remains as objects of science—‘specimens’—rather than as people at risk.

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