Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dilemmas, science, and the right thing to do

Yesterday I was spinning the dial, as is my usual Sesame-Street-attention-span way of watching TV, when the narrative and visuals I happened upon on LINK TV stopped me in my tracks. The title of the program, Dark Science grabbed me immediately, as I am ever on the alert for false science or the disparagement of good science.

This television presentation is clearly a sound, thoughtful re-telling of the full story to its 2003 resolution: I paid close attention to LINK TV’s version of the 1910-1911 Swedish expedition, headed by Eric Mjöberg, to the Kimberleys in Western Australia, initially to collect animal and plant specimens, and to consider, in the simplistic understanding of the time of Darwin’s theories of evolution, whether the Australian Aborigines were The Missing Link, or perhaps even more excitingly, living representatives of the Neanderthal species. The explorers brought back very fine films and still photographs, cultural objects, revealing diaries full of worthwhile observations, and, at Mjöberg’s insistence, the remains of numbers recently-deceased Aborigines taken right out of their graves, in some cases so fresh they had to be disarticulated by knife in order to be looted.

The upshot was that the skeletal remains were deposited in Sweden’s Museum of Ethnography where they sat, unstudied, and in fact, apparently unnoticed, until the Swedish anthropologist Claes Hallgren considered their origins and determined that they should rightly be repatriated to Western Australia. Dark Science is about not only the nightmarish story of the expedition (and its leader’s eventual decline into a haunted dementia and fame-less death) but the quite beautiful process of returning the bones to their homeland for reburial and restoration to eternal rest.

While I found the history compellingly interesting in and of itself, I was most taken with the certitude with which the Swedish academy and political leadership saw the mandate to return the remains as unarguable. In the early 21st century this is no longer so unusual, but even in very recent years this has not always been the case. For many, many years First World academe was highly resistant to the repatriation of cultural objects and, especially, human remains, all in the name of scientific research. Much of this controversy just happened to occur on the cusp of our ability to perform truly useful analysis of even ancient DNA, and it happened in the Americas as well as Europe and elsewhere in the world. This has, for instance, long been a major issue in the United States, reflected in the attempted partial resolution of the 1990 passage of the Native Americans Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

I see it as an extremely difficult ethical dilemma, with strong cases to be made on both sides. After all, the retention of objects in museums generally protects their physical integrity very effectively, and increasingly such objects, including human remains, may be all that are left of a culture. The scientific knowledge to be gained from the study of skeletal remains is tremendous, and of tremendous importance both to the surviving cultures and to the world at large. Yet the rights of people to retain the remains of their progenitors, to practice their beliefs with respect to the dead, and to autonomy of cultural practices are overwhelmingly important as well. Compromises, such as the retention of a minimum amount of physical material for DNA, dating, and paleo-pathological analysis may, or may not, “work” for all concerned.

Dark Science celebrates the conclusion that repatriation is the right thing to do. Yet it was an easy conclusion for Swedish scientists to come to, as there is little if any special scientific value in the examination of early 20th century skeletal remains. I wonder if the outcome might have been different had the skeletons been, say, 40 thousand years old instead…


  1. Thee is a New Zealand equivalent. Mokomokai - the preserved tattooed heads of Maori were traded around the world in the 1700's and 1800's. They are held in private collections and in museums all over the world and are slowly being returned to their rightful place, back with their tribes for burial.

  2. Thanks for the information, merinz! It's a very interesting and complicated subject.
    Good to hear from you again. Happy holidays!

  3. Tis a complicated subject and depends on which side of the fence you sit when giving an opinion!

    Happy holidays to you and family also!!

    No sun for me this summer - that huge hole in the ozone layer hovering over us has had dire consequences for me - one skin cancer removed (nothing dangerous though) and more to come!