Bones of contention
Robert Foley on why science still needs anthropological remains
Skulls, skeletons, mummies - what are more prosaically called human remains - play a significant part in our cultural life, appearing everywhere from Hamlet to heavy metal albums.
However, for two groups of people bones are particularly important. On the one hand are the numerous archaeologists, anthropologists, medical and forensic scientists for whom they are a source of information about life, death and disease in the past and the present. On the other are indigenous communities for whom they are either an echo of colonial degradation or ancestors whose spiritual peace has been lost. The value of bones to science has long been known. Leaving aside the role they play in training doctors, where any skeleton will do, skulls and other bones have contributed massively to our current scientific understanding of the nature and diversity of the human species. Studies of human remains have played a pivotal role in documenting the fact of evolution, and mapping out our path. Thousands of human and proto-human remains from millions of years of evolution provide the evidence for the fact that we were not created 'ready-made' but have a complex evolutionary history. While such ancient finds have traced the path of human evolution, more recent skeletons of contemporary human groups provide the essential comparative framework in which that evidence can be interpreted.
Long-term evolutionary history may be a remote past, even if it does have enormous implications for understanding the nature of the human species. However, human remains have played a key role in more immediate aspects of humanity. The anthropological study of skulls is often associated with ideas of race. We can easily conjure up pictures of white-coated scientists with callipers to hand, pigeonholing people into racial categories. Certainly that has happened, especially in the first half of the twentieth century and the last half of the nineteenth. That, however, was a long time ago. Since then anthropologists have used human skeletal shape and size to show that what we think of as biological races are nothing more than the dynamic interplay of changing environmental conditions, the ebb and flow of migration, gene flow and complex mating patterns. A far cry from the ladder of racial progress. Our current, fluid, non-racial view of human diversity owes an awful lot to the study of human remains.
Beyond human evolution and human diversity lie a host of other contributions the study of the human skeleton has made to our society. Bones record not just who people are, but also how they lived and died. The history of human health and disease, as well as patterns of growth and diet, is etched in the skeletons that have been recovered from around the world. They are a testimony to the variety of human experience, both good and bad. The human remains excavated by archaeologists and collected by explorers around the world have given us insights into humans beyond the textbook histories of Europe - of people evolving and changing, adapting to their environments, their bodies shaped by the food they had to eat, and dying of diseases, or wars, or starvation - the things we know of today.
The future of these collections is now at risk. A report sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has recommended that museums and other institutions in the UK which hold collections of human remains should actively seek out claimants with a view to assisting reburial and repatriation. Of the two groups deeply concerned with human remains, anthropological scientists and indigenous groups, the balance will have shifted entirely towards those who would like to see the end of such collections. If legislation is passed then all human remains - the scientific evidence of the human past - will be tied up in a bureaucracy in which the key element will be the notion of the 'consent' of people who died hundreds if not thousands of years ago.
Does it matter, one may ask? Surely it is better for people who are deeply disadvantaged, such as Australian aborigines and other indigenous groups, to feel a sense of closure and restoration, than for museums to keep material they have had for more than a hundred years in some cases. Surely there is nothing more to learn? The simple answer to this is that there are always new scientific techniques which can reveal more and more. In the last decade alone it has become possible to extract DNA from ancient bone, and thus for the first time be able to say something about prehistoric people's genetic make-up. Other new techniques allow us to reconstruct, through minute chemical traces, the way someone's diet may have changed as they grew, even to say how old they were when they were weaned. Yet further techniques are on the horizon.
But a more interesting answer lies not in the new techniques, but in the new questions. Science is about always finding new ways of asking whether what we think is true, an endless process of critical re-evaluation. This applies as much to archaeology and anthropology as to any other science. To be able to test these new ideas, we need the evidence. That evidence lies in the bones of the people who are not just ancestors to certain communities, but ancestors to all the people who are alive today. The loss of these collections will close a chapter in the book of human enquiry forever. And it will not just be the scientists who will have lost, but all people, all over the world, who want to know about the human past from a rational perspective.