Archaeological discoveries captivate our imaginations as we wonder about the people and how they lived long ago. As we find all sorts of different objects, we can imagine the story behind them, how people used them and if the find was significant to the person or people using it. Often times, much of that story remains a mystery and we’re left to let our imaginations run wild. Perhaps that is why archaeology is so captivating to the public, the thrill of the mystery. On top of that, imagine the sheer thrill of finding actual human remains! With modern science, human remains can tell us so much more about the people than just objects alone can. We can now tell what they ate, where they came from, their health, their stature, even reconstruct their face! These amazing breakthroughs have made history all the more real, as we can start to learn more on a personal level.
However, this groundbreaking research is not without controversy. Many modern groups have opposed such research, as they believe, for various reasons, that it is disrespectful to the dead. Perhaps the most well known groups to oppose the study of human remains are various tribes of Native Americans. Many believe that studying ancient remains on their land is disrespectful because it disturbed whom they believe to be their ancestors and that their tribe has been on their land since the dawn of time. Other groups oppose too, citing very similar reasons. Minority groups aren’t the only ones who object at times either. Many human remains from places like Europe also are called for reburial, as the Judeo-Christian tradition calls for leaving the deceased undisturbed. Although many of the arguments against the study of human remains are more spiritual in nature, there are a few secular and more general arguments brought up, such as studying human remains dehumanizes those being studied, the tests are often invasive and damage the body, and when minority groups are involved, it hearkens back to some form of historical racism and past exploitation. Despite any drawbacks though, overall, the ability to study human remains reaps benefits that outweigh the drawbacks and many arguments do not stand up to valid scrutiny.
By far, the probably the largest argument proposed by most groups is that by studying the remains scientifically, it takes away the person’s humanity. They argue that it becomes reduced to a mere “specimen”, and not a human being in the more philosophical sense. This, I believe is an entirely wrong way to look at it. To me, it helps make them more human, it shares their long lost legacy with us today. They are no longer just some old bones, but a person, who lived long ago and now we know more about their lives through studying them. Sure they are a “specimen”, but a specimen of humanity, not just some bland data. Being made an object of study does not trivialize what is being studied, on the contrary, it implies that it is so important, that scientists from all over have supplied numerous resources just to find out who that person really was like. The entire point of the research is to find out who they were as a person, not just a bunch of inanimate objects. Figuring out where they lived, what they ate, what they looked like, their culture etc, is what makes them who they are as a person, as it does us. In essence, the entire objective of any of the research is about making them “human” again.
Another argument many make is that those people belong to their group, therefore studying them disrespects that group along with more religious reasons, such as ancestry since the dawn of time, for one example. The problem is, over time, all cultures change. Names, language, culture, politics, religion etc, all change, very often dramatically the further in the past one gets. For example, think of Egypt. Egypt has been around for millennia, however modern Egyptians and Ancient Egyptians have extremely little in common! Language, religion, culture, clothing, all that has changed drastically. Even the name was not what the ancient Egyptians called themselves! Conquest is often the biggest contender but also cultural shift over time. It is not realistic to believe that one particular group has been in the same area with the exact same identity and culture as the ones living there today. Human remains from the palaeolithic, for example, would have almost certainly not have identified with whatever group claimed them today! Studying remains with no cultural ties to one particular group today and would not have identified as a member of that group, would reasonably not affect said group.
One last argument, but by far one of the most heated, yet easiest to solve is the claims of past racism and exploitation. Many minority groups have said that in the past, their remains were treated disrespectfully and with condescension by mainstream academia. They note that in the past, much of the research was used to fuel a racist agenda and was exploitive. However, today, we can change any racism or exploitation by simply being impartial and unbiased throughout the research. Taking note of cultural differences, and not making them into proof of inferiority, but of the interesting variation among humans eliminates any condescending bias. To study humans off a pedestal of cultural superiority, but with humility and a will to learn about them instead of dismissing their technology and culture helps solve the problem. Many of the past wounds inflicted are great, but that doesn’t mean the scientific community can’t or isn’t actively trying to change how they view other cultures and peoples.
Perhaps both sides could step forward and compromise a bit. Possible solutions could include making copies of the remains and burying the real ones, or no invasive damaging tests that would do permanent damage to the remains, as some ideas. Overall though, the benefit of putting a human side to history can only be a good thing. To know your own heritage, or simply know about those who came before you is a powerful feeling. To see how people lived back then is immensely interesting and gratifying to learn about. This issue is personal to me because of my passion for history. I want to see more people studied, so we can learn more history about who they were and how they lived. It frustrates me, as an intellectual, to see potential knowledge suppressed due to reasons that don’t stand up. The potential for gaining more knowledge into our human story is just too great to not think about.