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Osteobiographies: The Discovery, Interpretation and Repatriation of Human Remains

By: , Posted on: December 13, 2021

Archaeological discoveries can expand the depth and breadth of humanity’s story. Perhaps the most evocative discoveries are those of human remains. Human bones and teeth bear evidence of lives lived. While people from the distant past cannot be known by their given names, we have the tools to frame many features of their lives. These include age at death, sex, body size and build, and aspects of their life circumstances, like diet and disease. Some information comes from the size and shape of whole bones, while other information comes from laboratory analyses of tiny fragments. A single tooth (as might be extracted by a dentist or offered to the Tooth Fairy) is sufficient for exploration of radiocarbon date, stable isotopes linked to diet, other stable isotopes linked to geographic location, plus the ancient DNA of both the person and the person’s pathogens.

In my book, I explain how osteobiographies are constructed, with examples from my work in Canada and Africa. They include the discovery and interpretation of a skeleton from a child unable to walk who lived among hunter-gatherers and was sustained by her family for many years. Another example is that of an adult of uncertain sex and distorted facial features whose burial gifts indicate uniquely high social status. Other examples show how insights can come from the study of patterns within communities, as discerned from bones, teeth, or small samples thereof. These can be patterns of foodways, child growth, interpersonal violence and other traits, varying through space and time.

Past academic practice has shied away from linking this kind of information to the culture histories of specific modern descendants. Rather, researchers have treated it as relevant to a broad, universal story of humanity, as studied by their guild. This stance is reflected in their use of specialist terminology, their communication with narrowly framed audiences, and their limited social engagement. Society is generally unaware that scientific approaches can contribute useful new knowledge to regional histories. Scientists need to confront this unfamiliarity and the distrust that often accompanies it. Study of the ancestors can provide substantial information to the many global cultural groups whose documented histories are incomplete, biased, or both.

Collaboratively with descendants, my co-workers and I have explored the lives of ancestral Huron-Wendat (Indigenous people whose story began in what is now southern Ontario, Canada) by studying one tooth per person. With the permission of the descendants, these teeth were retained prior to the repatriation and reburial of their ancestors. As expected from traditional knowledge, we found isotopic evidence of adoption into the group of some people who began life elsewhere. We have isotopic evidence that the disruptions associated with arrival of Europeans led to food insecurity, with earlier weaning of babies and a lower proportion of animal protein in diets. These details can supplement and reinforce traditional knowledge and historic documents.

Moving the focus to southern Africa, our studies of hundreds of individual skeletons of ancestral Khoe-San foragers illustrate their biological adaptations and successful exploitation of a unique environment for thousands of years. This is consistent with expectations grounded in traditional knowledge of descendants as well ethnographic and historic observations. However, we also uncovered evidence of ancestral foragers practicing coalitionary violence in which women and children were killed with the tools normally used for foraging. We found this pattern only in one part of the extensive Khoe-San range, and only for a few hundred years. This unique pattern would not be predicted from other lines of knowledge about the Khoe-San and would not be known without osteobiographic research.

Educational, governmental, and cultural institutions hold collections of literally thousands of skeletons. Perhaps the most numerous catalogued units are isolated crania linked to the long period of “race science” when collectors sought to discern separations and rankings among human groups. There are also trays and boxes of skeletons and partial skeletons from archaeological excavations. The American federal law mandating repatriation to Indigenous descendants (NAGPRA) has been in place for several decades, but most countries do not have legislated frameworks for repatriation. The frameworks established for the return of cultural objects, like the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Return of Cultural Property, are not available to those who seek return of ancestors. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics offers guidance on the return of objects but is mute on the matter of human remains. With or without legislation and policy frameworks, it is hard to achieve successful repatriation or restitution, in which both descendants and scholars can point to achievement.

My book describes repatriations in Canada and Africa. I have detailed the steps taken to achieve the 2013 repatriation of Huron-Wendat ancestors. The context preceding this Canadian event was one of twentieth century archaeological research excavations, mainly undertaken by universities. The context preceding repatriations to African descendants was the export of human remains by nineteenth century colonial powers to Europe, and the establishment of colonial repositories in the occupied lands. I describe repatriations to Africa of individuals who were known by name and the return of others whose names are lost but who are nevertheless symbolically important to descendants. In all cases, the transfer of authority is very important, empowering the descendant communities.

I argue that in those many cases where transfer of responsibility for human remains is desired, the scientists with the skills to expand our information about those remains should be centrally involved. A relationship of trust and mutual respect must be built. Within it, scientists can construct osteobiographies in response to the direction and guidance of descendant communities. This work can go some way toward justifying the past disturbance of the dead and it can enrich our knowledge of our shared human past.


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