Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

In 2015 ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra and proceeded to destroy ancient ruins that they regarded as pagan or polytheistic. The World Heritage Site monuments were typically 2000 years old. Did ISIS have a right to destroy them? Most of us would say no, and would lament the loss of a heritage that cannot be replaced.

In saying that we are being culture-ist. That is, we are placing the values of our culture above those of ISIS, who, after all, would regard their acts as virtuous and as mandated by the highest authority, namely their religion. I readily plead guilty to be unapologetically culturist.

This comparison might be considered inappropriate, but in Nature this week I read about a 12,600-yr-old skeleton, the “Anzick Child”, that had been passed to Native American groups for reburial. The article lists 12 other skeletons, all older than 8000 yrs, that have either been reburied or might be. Reburial here effectively means their permanent loss, since they would decay relatively quickly under normal burial conditions.

As a scientist I am saddened by the loss of irreplaceable material that could tell us much about the past history of humans. I would regard such remains as part of the common heritage of us all and am unhappy about one group destroying them in the same way that I am unhappy about a group taking it upon itself to destroy Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddha statues. This is obviously very culturist of me, but then I’ve already pleaded guilty.


Why might we accept the right of a Native American tribe to dispose of ancient and irreplaceable materials, but not accept ISIS doing the same?

First, there is the issue of genetic relatedness. Under US law, the right to re-bury ancient human remains is being given to the Native American tribe that has the closest genetic match to the remains. However, no-one alive today could be regarded as any sort of close relative. We each have half the genes of a parent, a quarter of those of a grandparent, and an eighth of those of a great-grandparent, et cetera. The Anzick Child skeleton is from 500 generations ago.

Let us ask: suppose that some ISIS soldiers were found to be the closest genetic match to those who had built a temple at Palmyra 2000 years ago. Would we then accept their claim over it? I suspect that we would not, and would want the temple preserved whatever.

A second issue is that of religious affinity. We can say that the religion of ISIS is strongly antagonistic to that of the builders of the temple, and indeed that’s why they want to destroy it. In contrast, the Native American tribe would claim a religious and cultural affinity with the ancient ancestor, and would assert that the remains are being buried in line with their religion, and thus in line with the ancestor’s religion.

But can we really say anything much at all about the religion of a person who lived 12,000 years ago? Let’s consider, for example, the differences in religion between the UK today and the time of Stonehenge. We know almost nothing about the latter. For instance, most of our notions about Druids were invented in Victorian times; about the actual Druids we have only a few scraps of sentences from a few Roman writers, and then we note that Stonehenge, begun in 3000 BC, was further in the past from the Druids and Romans than they are from us.

The Anzick Child is more than twice as far into the past as Stonehenge. Even allowing for a much slower rate of change before the modern era, it is still fanciful and unlikely that the religion of today’s Native Americans aligns strongly with that of tribes 500 generations ago.

Lastly, of course, is the point that human remains are somewhat different from stone temples. All cultures have a special regard and reverence for human remains. It’s also true that Western museums have a track record of highly insensitive treatment of human material from “native” cultures that they didn’t properly respect. Often such material would be relatively recent, a matter of a hundred years or so, where we can be fairly sure of the cultural and religious affinities of the deceased.

I don’t suggest that we should ignore the wishes and feelings of such cultures. But I do suggest that such considerations be time limited. A time limit of perhaps 1000 years, maybe even 2000 years, might be appropriate. Before that, I personally would regard ancient remains as the common heritage of humankind, rather than of particular groups. And given the scarcity and irreplaceability of such material, and its high value to science and to our understanding of ourselves, I would always come down on the side of preservation.

Of course in the US this is all about politics. And today in the US identity politics matters far more than science. The Native American culture was largely destroyed by the arrival of Europeans, and they understandably reject anything that seems like cultural imperialism.

But from the Mayflower to today is only 400 years. That is one thirtieth of the time back to the Anzick Child. It saddens me that the politics of today mean the loss of irreplaceable material from a time far, far earlier that had nothing to do with the politics of today. Maybe I’m being insensitive and culturally imperialistic, but relics from that far back in our history are so rare that surely we should do our best to conserve them.


One thought on “Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

  1. GBJames

    Spot on, Coel. I trained as an archaeologist back in the 1970’s when this stuff was starting to percolate. I remember graduate seminars addressing the subject, but my memory is all of how the discipline needed to understand the law. I don’t remember any serious opposition within American archaeology to the assumption that this kind of law was acceptable. In my mind it is a travesty, but one born of anthropological guilt for the “sins” of a much earlier generation of anthropologists.

    All you need to do these days is site “sacred traditions” and you win the policy debate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s