Dem Bones

Originally published by the Guardian 7th March 2007

http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/simonunderdown

One of the saddest but often untold stories of the 18th and 19th centuries was the huge loss of human life, and diversity, as European empire builders spread “civilization”. Tragically, this “civilization” took the form of enforced western modes of behaviour and all too often the extermination of populations that were considered troublesome or occupied regions rich in valuable natural resources. Within a relatively short space of time whole ways of life were wiped out: millennia of rich human diversity were gone forever.

Most of the indigenous populations that suffered had traditions of oral history and as they died so to did their histories. Pockets of indigenous people remain but the process of “Mac-Disneyfication” continues unabated. What we are left with, however, are the skeletal remains of indigenous groups that were collected during the same period, albeit in ways abhorrent to modern standards, now residing in museums.

In many cases these skeletons are the last representatives of populations that were utterly destroyed. Analysis of these skeletal remains by scientists, always with extreme reverence and respect, gives us a last chance to better understand the story of humanity. Human skeletons are an invaluable source of information for the understanding of recent human evolution; or how we came to be who we are. The data that can be collected ranges from sex, age at death and disease right through to dietary make-up and DNA profiles.

However, over the last few years there have been increasingly vocal calls from minority groups for the repatriation and reburial (ie destruction) of many of the remains held in British institutions. These bones allow every single human being to better understand our shared history. Genetic analysis of human bones has shown that we are a very closely related species of primate. Surface differences, like skin colour, are insignificant when seen in the light of how recently we evolved in Africa (circa 200,000 years ago), demonstrating how little genetic difference exists between us all. Analysis of these human bones has done so much to show up the flaws in racist arguments.

Institutions that hold collections of human skeletons are generally happy to work with those seeking repatriation of remains and simply ask that they be allowed to carry out tests first. The research that anthropologists carry out is generally non-invasive and when samples are collected they are usually very small. DNA analysis or radiocarbon dating can be performed with a single tooth. Groups that seek repatriation try to demonise those of us who work with human skeletal remains, recently stating that these experiments were nothing more that “mutilation” and were causing “torment to the souls of the dead”.

The most vocal calls for destructive repatriation generally come from groups who disagree with the story scientific analysis presents, which often sharply contrast with indigenous creation myths (which are so central to land claims). Preventing the analysis of these bones through reburial won’t just stop the current generation from better understanding our global history but will make it impossible forever. Can one generation of people be allowed to rule this out for all that come after them?

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