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Skeletons and their descendants

In the 1980s, Native Americans in the U.S. began an organized campaign against the excavation, removal, and analysis of ancient burials. Criticisms were leveled by indigenous communities regarding the racist and problematic act of storing their ancestor’s remains and of conducting scientific experimentation on them without their consent. What unfolded for bioarchaeologists working in the U.S. at this time was an awakening to both the epistemological aspects of bioarchaeology as well the ethical issues involved in conducting research on ancient human remains. Also what became clear was that bioarchaeologists needed to articulate the precise ways that this kind of research mattered and was important, relevant, and necessary to do. Over and over at international meetings, such as the international World Archaeology Conference (WAC), and at the national American Association of Physical Anthropology (AAPA) meetings, tribal and indigenous representatives would come to bioarchaeological presentations and want to know why bioarchaeologists were doing research on their ancestors without their permission. That the research questions were of anthropological significance was true, but the reasons of anthropological significance sounded hollow and fell flat when explained to the living descendants of those being studied. Bioarchaeological research at that time was not articulated in a way that provided relevance to the descendants of the people being studied, or to a broader audience.

In the U.S. the passage of NAGPRA in 1990 was a watershed moment for the new generation of bioarchaeologists. This legislation made certain that Native American representatives would be part of all future decisions surrounding the excavation, curation, and analysis of human remains from precolonial periods in the U.S. (i.e., burials associated with archaeological sites dated to before the early 1500s). In most cases, if their work on human remains was to continue, it would have to be with the permission of the living descendants (Figure 1.3). And federal and state repositories across the U.S. were legally mandated to present an inventory of bodies in their custody to those tribes who were most likely to be descendants. Tribes then can request that the burials and associated items of cultural patrimony be returned to them.

As chronicled in “Owning the Sins of the Past,” the passage of NAGPRA legislation was a huge event in the field, marking a shift in the ways that scientific studies in bioarchaeology should be done (Martin 1998: 185). More important, it signaled soul-searching and self-reflection within the scientific community and bioarchaeologists began asking themselves if this was the right career for them. Some bioarchaeologists moved into forensic anthropology and some refocused their research to other archaeological sites in Europe and Mexico where these kinds of issues were not yet being raised.

Larsen and Walker (2005) provide an extensive overview of the range of ethical issues raised by NAGPRA not only in response to Native American concerns but also to the concerns of bioarchaeologists who believe in the value of what the human remains can reveal. They raise the counter-issue that it can be considered unethical to not document the past because it is such a crucial part of the science of understanding human problems. Larsen and Walker present the ethical complexities that NAGPRA raises, but they emphasize that bioarchaeological research is relevant and important to continue doing.

As more bioarchaeologists consider the ethics of their work in paleopathology the world over and as more descendant communities demand having the final

FIGURE 1.3 Cindi Alvitre (Tongva) speaks to students of the 2012 Pimu Catalina Island Archaeological Field School regarding the respectful and culturally appropriate treatment of Tongva ancestors during a reburial ceremony held on Catalina Island. Photo taken by Desiree Martinez.

say over the handling of their ancestors’ remains, ideas about what it means to do ethical bioarchaeology is evolving. Alfonso and Powell (2008) review the conflicts raised within bioarchaeology when the goal is to study ancestral bodies but the descendants assert that they do not want them studied. Human remains and human bodies are unlike other artifacts in that they take on special meaning in a number of different realms. Consider this: “Human bodies hold a special place because they are inscribed with symbolism as well as cultural and political significance. Bodies challenge both the practice of biological anthropology and its purported value-free objectivity” (Alfonso and Powell 2008: 6). Constructing a code of ethics that would cover all situations encountered from the field to the lab to the museum and to the classroom has proved challenging, but there has been progress. Marquez-Grant and Fibiger (2011) have published the Routledge Handbook on Archaeological Human Remains and Legislation, and with 60 chapters from bioarchaeologists from all over the world, it presents recent legislation, best practices for carrying out ethical studies, ways of collaborating with descendant communities, and ideas for carrying bioarchaeological work into the future with more reflexivity and sensitivity to the living whose ancestors they hope to study.

Two things continue to facilitate bioarchaeological work in the U.S. since the passage of NAGPRA and in the absence of new excavations and retrieval of new burials. One is that the ethics of working with human remains became the focus of seminars and sessions at national meetings. This self-reflection played a role in reorienting how bioarchaeology could be done and under what kinds of circumstances. The second thing is that these focused roundtables discussions facilitated talking more broadly about the value of collecting data from ancient remains and for thinking about issues such as diet, health, and demography today. Understanding fundamental aspects of social life in the past became a bridge for thinking of ways that these data were applicable to people today (see Martin et al. [2013] for numerous examples).

At the same time, biological anthropologists working with living populations were also questioning the effects of their studies on indigenous and tribal groups. Goodman and Leatherman (1998) brought together a diverse group of biological anthropologists to reimagine how using the biocultural paradigm combined with social theories about the formation, maintenance, and effects of inequality could invigorate the field. This edited volume, titled Building a New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-Economic Perspectives on Human Biology, is still relevant today and is replete with cross-cultural case studies on the ways that political-economic and gender theory brings nuance and richness to interpretations of patterns of morbidity and mortality. The volume is a testament to the ways that social theory brings scientific findings to bear on the present and future in more meaningful ways and is relevant to a much broader audience. Thus, the call for relevancy and bridging social theory with biological anthropology ran parallel in the 2000s to the call for doing so with bioarchaeology.

No one could have predicted the continued popularity and growth of bioarchaeology back in 1990 when NAGPRA was instituted in the U.S. and when NAGPRA-like legislation was adopted in many other countries such as Australia and Israel. Relatively rapid growth of bioarchaeology has occurred in the last ten years and bioarchaeology is today a fully acknowledged practice unto itself (i.e., not a hybrid) within biological anthropology (Martin et al. 2013: 1—6). As bioarchaeology matures in the U.S. and internationally, the increasing number of books and studies being published, the uptick in the number of symposia and sessions organized at AAPA and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meetings, and the expanding number of blogs and websites dedicated to bioarchaeology, make clear that it is an expanding, thriving, and robust subdiscipline within anthropology (Martin et al. 2013: 248—250). Graduate programs in bioarchaeology are well established in many of the major universities and in the last several years (2010—2015), there has been an annual uptick in the number of tenure-track academic positions posted on the American Anthropological Association website’s Career Center (www. aaanet.org/profdev).

For bioarchaeologists in the U.S. there is an ethical imperative that has been created by the kinds of pushback from tribal and indigenous peoples the world over in reaction to the excavation and analysis of their ancestral remains. In the U.S., this culminated in not only NAGPRA but in other related kinds of legislation that dictate the inclusion of descendants in decisions made about the excavation, storage, and analysis of human remains. Specific criticisms aimed at skeletal analyses suggested that the research was of limited value to anyone but a small group of scientists. In countering these kinds of accusations, many bioarchaeologists now strive to make clear the ways that their research is relevant, and many bioarchaeologists obtain permission from living descendants to conduct research and often to collaborate with tribal representatives on what kind of research is done.

 
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