The right to the past

Who is most entitled to a human skeleton? Should a fossil be examined or buried?

From a research perspective the answer is clear: rare findings of historical remains from human beings can provide us with priceless knowledge about the variation, migration, and evolution of Homo sapiens. Naturally, the findings should be examined by scientists. But everyday life is not quite as simple as that. Present research is caught in a global, political tug war concerning the right to the past.

Burial or scientific research?

One of the speakers at the annual meeting of the Department of Molecular Biology at Aarhus University was the Danish research star of ancient DNA Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen. In a whirlwind of technical details, fantastic stories, luck, and hard work, he took the many listeners on a trip around the world in the search for genetic material from the past. We visited the tundra of Siberia, the unwelcoming climate of Greenland, the caves of the Midwest of the United States, and the basement of the National Museum.

The everyday life of Willerslev is filled with animals and plants that are long extinct. He dashes familiarly among mammoths and musk oxen as well as mice and human beings. The many large and extinct mammals are fascinating but rarely controversial. Nonetheless, Willerslev dares to contradict conventional knowledge and challenge us scientifically where it is painful at times and under all circumstances eventful. However, the heated discussions are not always reserved for the scientific world.

Kennewick Man

When talking about the past of man, there are suddenly a lot of other interests at stake than the purely scientific. That was made clear in the case of the “Kennewick Man”. In 1996, a cranium was discovered in the Columbia River in the state of Washington. The subsequent investigations led to findings of more skeletal remains. This would have gone unnoticed until an anthropologist confirmed that the skeleton in question was very old and also, that it could be of European descent.

This caught the attention of Native American groups. Referencing to the NAGRPRA – Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – which since 1990 gave Native Americans the right to claim human remains if they could prove cultural or tribal patrimony, they claimed the Kennewick Man. After several years, the American justice system determined that the five tribes claiming the Kennewick Man could not establish significant evidence of their affiliation. Subsequently, the scientists were allowed to resume their research of the find.

The first sensational announcement of possible European origin proved wrong. The results of the research is still in the process of being published  and we can expect many more exciting results to be found which we would have missed had the courts decided differently.

In 2008, in the well renowned magazine Science, Eske Willerslev and a team of international scientists concluded that humans had inhabited North America more than 14.000 years ago based on analyses of ancient DNA from samples of faeces found in caves in the state of Oregon – before the conventional recognition and dating of the so-called Clovis Complex. This marked the beginning of an extensive research project on the first humans in North and South America where Willerslev and his colleagues are constantly made aware of the fact that the struggle for the rights to the past is far from over.

Druids in the basement

It is also evident in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge. We have more than 20.000 skeletons in the basement belonging to the so called Duckworth Collection which contains finds from all over the world collected through centuries by the people of Cambridge University. Demands are regularly made from all around the world for the return of some of these finds – not for research purposes but in order for them to be buried.

It is a difficult and sensitive matter. If the finds are buried, we lose an important resource in understanding our common past, emigration, evolution, and diversity.

One of the more curious demands comes from nearby. The British Druid Order has attempted to claim the British skeletons in our collection. This took place under reference to an ancient religious and cultural connection. The problem is that the order was based in the 1970s on a fascination of a mythical past and therefore has less historical claim to the skeletons than the coalminers in Yorkshire.

When their claim was flat out denied, they attempted a new and less ambitious proposal: would it be possible to perform a druid ritual in our basement in order to lay the British skeletons to rest? This was not possible. The doors are closed to the druids. But the struggle of the past of man continues.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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