Whose Bones?

Archaeology, Anthropology and other scientific, research-based, evidence-dependent fields of study sometimes come into conflict with indigenous peoples in the areas they examine. A particularly long-standing and deeply felt grievance has been the wholesale and non-consensual removal of indigenous artifacts and human remains, by mostly non-indigenous scientists, to museums and universities. Indignation at this state of affairs on the part of the people whose artifacts and relatives’ skeletons these are is entirely understandable, but it is possible that the situation has now been over-corrected.

Many scientists, historians, and researchers, while agreeing that some collections should never have existed in the first place, consider that others should not be returned now, because they are so old that direct tribal affiliation is impossible to establish. The issues have been brought into focus and the conflict has been intensified since the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, by the US Congress in 1990. This is what George Johnson said in the New York Times Magazine in 1996 about the effect the act has had:

Since the repatriation act was passed in 1990, American Indian creationism, which rejects the theory of evolution and other scientific explanations of human origins in favor of the Indians’ own religious beliefs, has been steadily gaining in political momentum. Adhering to their own creation accounts as adamantly as biblical creationists adhere to the Book of Genesis, Indian tribes have stopped important archeological research on hundreds of prehistoric remains.

Johnson describes one case in which two Montana tribes put a stop to archaeological work that had discovered naturally shed human hairs scattered over the ground and wanted to examine the hairs’ DNA content. This wasn’t a burial site, it was just a place where some fallen hair had ended up, but the work was delayed for two years because the tribes considered the research ‘sacrilegious’. Johnson again:

Most archeologists agree with the tribes that historical remains, some taken in wars with the government and shipped to museums, should be given to their relatives for reburial. But in case after case, Indian creationism is being used to forbid the study of prehistoric skeletons so old that it would be impossible to establish a direct tribal affiliation. Under the repatriation act, who gets the bones is often being determined not by scientific inquiry but by negotiation between local tribes and the federal agencies that administer the land where the remains are found.

Adherents of the ‘Strong Programme’ in the Philosophy and Sociology of Science should be thrilled: who gets the bones is not a matter of scientific inquiry but of negotiation. Pragmatist-world, where the truth is not about the facts of the case but what we can all agree on.

The subject is hotly disputed, so clearly it’s the duty of B and W to provide a sampling of links.

External Resources

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