Don’t Bury the Bones
A committee has met behind closed doors in London over the last two years to
decide the future of old bones in British cultural and scientific institutions.
Their deliberations and decision will have consequences for all of us. The skeletons
in the closets could tell us about history, humanity and our health, if only
we would let them.
There is a growing feeling amongst many in the museum profession that
old human remains should be returned to where they were originally found. Tony
Blair raised the issue of repatriation in 2000 when he agreed to increase efforts
to send back remains from Australian indigenous communities. The Department
for Culture Media and Sport subsequently set up a working group to examine the
issue and consider how the law might be changed to allow institutions to repatriate
all human remains.
The working group is made up of a few lawyers, museums professionals and anthropologists,
among them Dr Neil Chalmers, director of The Natural History Museum; Norman
Palmer, Professor of Commercial Law at University College London, and Tristram
Besterman, director of the Manchester University Museum, who was until recently
the convenor of the Museums Association Ethics Committee.
The group was asked to examine the legal status of human remains in the collections
of publicly funded Museums and Galleries in the UK and the powers of these institutions
to deaccession the remains. They had to consider the desirability of deaccession,
the form of changes in legislation that would be necessary, and a statement
of principles for guidance. The group will also make recommendations on how
to include non-human remains associated with human remains in these changes.
The group is expected to issue recommendations to government soon. The main
suggestion will be the relaxation of laws that currently prevent institutions
from parting with bones. Overall it will advocate the return, for moral reasons,
of skeletons presently held in national collections.
The bones are evidence from the past that speak to us about life from between
one century to many thousands of years ago. Under scrutiny they reveal patterns
of migration, the effect of environment upon body form, and the relationship
between different populations. We can learn who lived where and when, about
patterns in health, origin, gene flow and microevolutionary change
When the law changes, large and significant collections could be broken up
and sent away. A survey by the committee found human remains from all over the
world in more than sixty British museums. The Natural History Museum, for example,
has a broad collection of at least twenty thousand remains that are used extensively
by scientists for comparative research. University collections include those
held at Edinburgh and Cambridge.
If returned, the collections will probably be treated as sacred and then buried.
This has already happened in similar cases, and the likelihood that it will
continue was reinforced at the annual conference for the Museum Association.
The keynote speech was given by Rodney Dillon, a Tasmanian Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Commissioner who travels the world campaigning for the return
of old aboriginal skeletons. Speaking to a welcoming audience Dillon proclaimed,
‘We take pride in our people’s past. Without our remains where they should be,
buried where they belong, we can’t cope. People are walking around with their
heads down as their ancestors are not there.’
The pending ruling won’t remove all the material, of course. Not every group
wants the remains returned, and in some situations no link can be found to any
group at all. Some remains are of no research value, so there is no reason for
them to be in a lab collecting dust. And research may well continue around the
world. But on the whole it is likely that some of the most crucial material
about humanity will be lost.
America has gone further down this path and indicates what could happen in
the UK. In 1990, NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation
Act) set new criteria for who should make the decisions regarding the disposition
of human remains and artefacts. It is a mandate for researchers and museums
to return all human remains to their closest hereditary or cultural descendants.
The descendants decide the future of the bones whether they throw them into
the sea, examine them, or bury them six feet under.
There has been a steady impact upon collections. Museums backed by government
have sent back vital collections and remains, most of which have been covered
in soil. It is estimated that the Smithsonian alone has transferred more than
3,335 sets of human remains. In 1999 the Peabody Museum based at Harvard University
returned remains of nearly two thousand individuals to the Pecos and Jemez Pueblo
in New Mexico.
The Pecos were at their peak between 1300 and 1600 and ruled over a trade path
between the Pueblo farmers of the Rio Grande and tribes of the buffalo plains.
The bones have been studied since their discovery in 1915. The collection was
the largest available skeletal population from a single community and was large
enough to be statistically significant. As a result we have learned about the
influence of diet and disease on populations. We know more about osteoporosis,
head injuries, and the development of dental cavities. This was brought to an
end upon return of the collection when the bones were covered in earth. We can
learn nothing further from these bones.
The Kennewick Man found on a riverbank in Washington state in 1996 is one of
the most important skeletons to be found, but it cannot at present be examined.
Initial radiocarbon samples showed the bones to be around 9,500 years old, proving
the skeleton to be of Paleo-Indian age, and one of the oldest prehistoric individuals
to be found in North America. Preliminary analysis suggested the bones were
not American Indian but possibly European. Before further research could be
done the bones were confiscated. Under NAGPRA any human remains found in North
American that predate Columbus (1492), no matter how old the bones are, are
considered American Indian.
The case has been contested by anthropologists who have gone from court to
court asking to be allowed to examine the skeleton. Early this year a federal
judge denied the motion that had put their investigations on hold. Scientists
and historians held their breath eager to start work only to have their hopes
dashed a month later with another court hearing blocking the study of the bones.
Eight years after the discovery of an amazing piece of history, it still cannot
Legislation backing the right of one group to decide prevents us all from ever
finding out more, or challenging what we think we know. In the name of protecting
ancient and sacred beliefs, what ought to be a rational legal system is blocking
the furthering of our knowledge of humanity.
At the heart of the battle is the idea that a group identity owns the sole
rights to investigate the past and can prevent all others from doing so. Yet
the very idea of fixed groupings and cultural continuity over thousands of years
is a flawed supposition. The history of human beings is not one of separate
and permanent cultures, but one of continual migration, amalgamation, fission
and disintegration. Neither people nor language, and certainly not geographic
location remain stable for more than a small period of time. The idea that there
is a clear link to thousands of years ago is fundamentally wrong. It also advances
notions of fixed and separate races that should not be tolerated today. These
are ideas that science and a rational understanding of history have proven incorrect.
The idea that one group should dictate to others what can and cannot be investigated
is a serious and dangerous problem for all. The collections should belong to
the world rather than any one group. That one group can censor and obscure access
to knowledge on the basis of an identity from hundreds or thousands of years
ago, is seriously wrong and threatens the future of ideas and understanding.
At last years Museums Association conference, Rodney Dillon exclaimed in his
keynote address, ‘We have no clean water, there is petrol sniffing and crime
is rife.’ It was a moving speech that filled me with outrage. But he used this
terrible situation to argue that the bones should be returned and buried. ‘It
is no good worrying about the future, we need to think about the past,’ he claimed.
Destroying history, understanding, and knowledge is not the solution to the
very serious problems of this community. Indeed there is a great danger in rooting
today’s pressing problems in the bones from thousands of years ago. The current
circumstances of aborigines need to change in the here and now. Worrying about
the past only obscures the nature and urgency of the problems.
The UK working group is eager to send the bones back. Members admit their recommendations
will be "anti-scientific" but those in the nervous and unconfident
museum profession welcome an opportunity to improve their image. They feel that
they can benefit from this gesture. At a recent meeting on the bones someone
from the Heritage Lottery Fund declared we ‘need to understand the spiritual
role of these objects and sacred artefacts that can help us find our place.’
It seems that many are turning their backs on the scientific project of making
new discoveries, and instead want to find new meaning in old myths.
Secrets at our fingertips about the past are being covered up. The opportunity
to explore and ask questions of our ancestors, to reaffirm or challenge conventional
views, to evaluate what we discover against what we have been led to believe,
is at stake. Those in charge of cultural institutions should not turn their
backs on their responsibility to honour access to knowledge, for the sake of
humanity’s past and all our futures.
Tiffany Jenkins is a director at the Institute of Ideas.