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Anthropologists as the Good Guys

Historians/History




Dr. Elizabeth Weiss is an anthropology professor at San Jose State University. Dr. Weiss’s latest book is Reburying the Past: The Effects of Repatriation and Reburial on Scientific Inquiry (Available through http://www.novapublishers.com --use promotional code leaf40 for a 40% discount on the cover price.)

In a recent article posted on HNN (May 14, 2009), Tony Platt (a Professor emeritus, California State University, Sacramento) stated that:

Between 1788, when Thomas Jefferson dug up an Indian burial mound near his home, and the 1970s when the Red Power movement began to put amateur and professional archaeologists on the defensive, the harvesting of Native American human remains was widespread, authorized, and even celebrated as good science.

He also calls for a public debate on why and how “hundreds of thousands of Indian remains were stored anonymously in dank basements…”  There is another perspective to the collections of Native American remains that has not often been published.  This perspective allows us to view anthropologists of the past through their own lenses of morality rather than judging past scientists by our own moral code. Most people have difficulty divorcing their own morals from the morals of the past, for example, in the 2006 book Imperialism, Art, and Restitution, the authors Dr. Michael Brown from Williams College and Margaret Bruchac from University of Massachusetts, Amherst wrote:

The implementation of NAGPRA prompted anthropologists to examine their profession with a critical eye, to weigh the thoughtless and sometimes shameful behavior of anthropology’s intellectual ancestors against more recent efforts to set matter right.

Past anthropologists have been facing this retroactive judgment since the 1960s. Although some anthropologists conducted research that has not held up in the years (such Dr. Samuel Morton’s phrenology studies, which involved telling the character of an individual by the shape of the skull and face), other anthropological research has withstood the test of time, such as studies that show the increase of infectious disease rates with the adoption of agriculture.

Early studies were not about disrespect and many continue to serve a purpose today. Studies conducted at the beginning of the twentieth century on thigh bone differences between ethnic groups, for example, still help forensic anthropologists identify crime victims. Other early studies have helped us to understand that many of our differences are in part due to climatic differences and this in turn has given us an understanding where people came from. Information gained from studies as early as 1917 has provided anthropologists with a foundation for our new more sophisticated studies, such as those that enable activity pattern reconstructions using bone diameters.  For instance, these studies have repeatedly shown how in the eastern US the adoption of agriculture led to greater work loads of females compared to males. And, often early studies were descriptive and have allowed modern anthropologists to develop guidelines to record data on a number of traits, such as artificial cranial deformation, bone cancer, injuries, and many others, that we use to accurately tell the story of the past.                

Perhaps worse than judging past peoples by today’s moral codes, is demanding that present-day anthropologists pay for past indiscretions. Anthropologists have been paying for the sins of earlier scientists for decades. While it is true that sometimes early anthropologists used destructive methods (which were at times the only methods available) and sometimes displayed remains in ways now considered inappropriate, many early anthropologists had a sincere interest in learning about the past.

Some individuals who are in support of repatriation have classified all anthropological research as racist. Attorney Jerry Springer recently pointed out that some Native Americans perceive modern anthropologists as having the same mindset of European colonialists and state that anthropological theories are just a way to cover up racism. For example, Suzan Harjo, an activist with the Morning Star Foundation, clearly states that she thinks that the study of Indian remains comes down to racism. What is often ignored is that American Indian remains are not singled out; the 5000 year old Ice Man from Europe, for example, has been and continues to be studied extensively. There are famous autopsy collections housed in New Mexico and Ohio, and mummies of the Old and New World are continuously being examined. Even DNA tests on historic figures are common, such as the last Tsar of Russia and President Zachary Taylor.

In conclusion, anthropologists can be viewed as the good guys who respect human remains.  The preservation of human remains in museums, universities, and other institutes of study enables greater understanding about past peoples. By reburying human remains, anthropologists lose the capability to learn more about the past and share this information with others.  This loss can be viewed as disrespectful to past peoples by destroying their ability to tell their story.


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