Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Reconsidering Body Worlds: why do we still flock to exhibits of dead human beings?

When Dr. Gunther von Hagens started using “plastination“ in the 1970s to preserve human bodies, he likely did not anticipate the wild success of the Body Worlds exhibitions that stem from his creation. Body Worlds has since hosted millions of visitors to its exhibits, including six spin-offs. The offshoots include a version on vital organs and another featuring plastinated animal remains. The process replaces natural bodily fluids with polymers that harden to create odorless and dry "specimens.”

Frozen in place, plastinated remains in the exhibits are rigidly posed – both for dramatic effect and to illustrate specific bodily features. Over 40 million museum visitors have encountered these exhibitions in more than 100 different locations worldwide. Even copycat exhibits have taken off, eschewing accredited museums in favor of places like the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

But Body Worlds – though seemingly an entirely modern phenomenon only made possible with futuristic plastic technology – emerges from a long tradition of popular exhibits featuring actual and simulated human remains. What continues to draw so many people to human body exhibitions – even today?

Early exhibits of human bodies

For nearly as long as physicians and anatomists have attempted to understand the body, they have attempted to preserve, illustrate and present it. Cabinets of curiosities displayed in the homes of European nobility in the 16th century frequently included human skulls. As civic museums emerged in cities throughout Europe and the United States, some began to formally organize collections around anatomical questions.

Medical museums were often more interested in pathologies – abnormal medical conditions or disease. They also collected thousands of skulls and bones, attempting to address basic questions about race. Early on, medical museums were generally closed to the public, instead focusing on training medical students through hands-on experience with specimens. Almost reluctantly, they began opening their doors to the public. Once they did, they were surprised by the relatively large number of visitors curiously entering their galleries.

Medical museums were not the sole institutions housing and displaying remains, however. Collections aimed more squarely at the general public often included such items as well. The Army Medical Museum, for instance, located along the National Mall, exhibited human remains between 1887 and the 1960s (living on as the National Museum of Health and Medicine). The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History built its own large body collections, especially during the early 20th century. Popular exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History exhibited human remains in New York City just steps from Central Park.

Notable exhibits featuring human remains or innovative reproductions were also wildly popular at World’s Fairs, including Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904) and San Diego (1915), among many others. People crowded galleries even as these exhibits proved vexing to critics.

Troubling transition from person to specimen

In the quest to rapidly build collections, remains were sometimes collected under highly questionable ethical circumstances. Bodies were removed from graves and sold, gathered from hospitals near exhibitions reminiscent of human zoos, and rounded up haphazardly from battlefields.

In the United States, the human body in the late 19th and early 20th century was racialized in almost every respect imaginable. Many people became obsessed with the supposed differentiations between Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans – occasionally stretching claims into rigid hierarchies of humankind. The exhibitions dehumanized bodies by casting them as observable data points rather than actual human beings.

Some exhibits blended medical science and racial science in a bizarrely inaccurate manner. Medical doctors supported eugenics groups organizing temporary exhibits comparing hair and skulls from different apes and nonwhite humans, underscoring popular notions about the supposedly primitive nature of those outside of Western civilization. To our modern eyes, these attempts are obviously stained by scientific racism.

Eventually, the racialized science that had led to collecting thousands of skulls and other bones from people around the world came under increased scrutiny. The comparative study of race – dominating many early displays of human remains – was largely discredited.

Indigenous activists, tired of seeing their ancestors viewed as “specimens,” also began pushing back against their display. Some exhibit planners began seeking other methods – including more sophisticated models – and exhibiting actual human remains became less prominent.

By midcentury it was less common to display actual human remains in museum exhibits. The occasional Egyptian mummy notwithstanding, museum remains were largely relegated behind the scenes to bone rooms.

Specimen exhibits fade, temporarily

With largely unfounded concern, museum administrators, curators and other critics worried audiences would be disgusted when shown vivid details about human anatomy. Gradually, as medical illustrations became better and easier to reproduce in textbooks, the need for demonstrations with real “specimens” seemed to dissipate.

First displayed at a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, see-through models of the human body became a favorite attraction at medical exhibits in years to come. Models replicated actual human body parts rather than displaying them in preserved form. Exhibits were sometimes animated with light shows and synchronized lectures.

Later, in the 1960s, new transparent models were created for popular education. Eventually, some of the many transparent medical models wound up in science museums. Although popular, it remains unclear how effective the models were in either teaching visitors or inspiring them to learn more about the human body.

Over the years, methods for teaching anatomy shifted. Many medical museums even closed permanently. Those that could not dispose of collections by destroying them donated or sold them. Human body exhibits generally faded from public consciousness.

But after decades of declining visitor numbers, something surprising started happening at one of the nation’s most important medical museums. The Mütter Museum’s displays continued to draw heavily from its human remains collections even as similar institutions moved away from such exhibits. From the mid-1980s to 2007, the number of visitors entering the Mütter’s galleries grew from roughly 5,000 visitors per year to more than 60,000. Today, the museum is the most visited small museum in Philadelphia, hosting over 130,000 visitors annually.

When Body Worlds began touring museums in the mid-1990s, it tapped into a curiosity in the U.S. that has probably always existed – a fascination with death and the human body.

Adding a gloss of scientization to the dead

People are very often unsettled by seeing what were once living, breathing, human beings – people with emotions and families – turned into scientific specimens intended for public consumption. Despite whatever discomfort emerges, however, the curious appeal of medicalized body displays at public museums lingers, enough so to make them consistently appealing as fodder for popular exhibitions.

Body Worlds states “health education” is its “primary goal,” elaborating that the bodies in exhibits are posed to suggest that we as humans are “naturally fragile in a mechanized world.” The exhibits are partially successful in achieving that mission. In tension with the message about human fragility, though, is the desire to preserve them by preventing their natural decay through technology.

With public schools cutting health programs in classrooms around the United States, it stands to reason people might seek this kind of body knowledge elsewhere. Models are never quite as uniquely appealing as actual flesh and bone.

But while charged emotional responses have the potential to heighten curiosity, they can also inhibit learning. While museum administrators voiced concern that visitors would be horrified viewing actual human bodies on exhibit, the public has instead proven to have an almost insatiable thirst for seeing scientized dead.

In the face of this popularity, museums must fully consider the special implications and problems with these exhibitions when choosing to display human bodies.

One basic concern relates to the exact origins of these bodies. Criticisms elicited an official response from von Hagens. Major ethical differences exist between exhibitions including human remains where permission has been granted in advance by the deceased or through descendants and museum displays revealing bodies of individuals offered no choice in the matter.

Spiritually sacred objects and the remains of past people present unique issues which must be dealt with sensitively and on an individual basis. Cultural and historical context is important. Consulting with living ancestors is critical.

Exhibitors also need to do more to put these displays into greater historical context for visitors. Without it, visitors might mistake artfully posed cadavers as art pieces, which they most assuredly are not.

These are all issues we will likely be grappling with for years to come. If past history is suggestive of future trends, visitors will continue to be drawn to these exhibits as long as the human body remains mysterious and alluring.

2016. “Reconsidering Body Worlds: why do we still flock to exhibits of dead human beings?”. The Conversation. Posted: April 8, 2016. Available online: https://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Monday, May 23, 2016

From pantomime to sign: How sign language evolves

How does sign language develop? A new study shows that it takes less than five generations for people to go from simple, unconventional pantomimes—essentially telling a story with your hands—to stable signs. Researchers asked a group of volunteers to invent their own signs for a set of 24 words in four separate categories: people, locations, objects, and actions. Examples included “photographer,” “darkroom,” and “camera.” After an initial group made up the signs—pretending to shoot a picture with an old-fashioned camera for “photographer,” for example—they taught the signs to a new generation of learners. That generation then played a game where they tried to guess what sign another player in their group was making. When they got the answer right, they taught that sign to a new generation of volunteers. After a few generations, the volunteers stopped acting out the words with inconsistent gestures and started making them in ways that were more systematic and efficient. What’s more, they added markers for the four categories—pointing to themselves if the category were “person” or making the outline of a house if the category were “location,” for example—and they stopped repeating gestures, the researchers reported last month at the Evolution of Language conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. So in the video above, the first version of “photographer” is unpredictable and long, compared with the final version, which uses the person marker and takes just half the time. The researchers say their finding supports the work of researchers in the field, who have found similar patterns of development in newly emerging sign languages. The results also suggest that learning and social interaction are crucial to this development.

Matacic, Catherine. 2016. “From pantomime to sign: How sign language evolves”. Science Magazine. Posted: April 8, 2016. Available online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/pantomime-sign-how-sign-language-evolves

Sunday, May 22, 2016

What really happened on Easter Island?

Hundreds of iconic moai statues stand testament to the vibrant civilization that once inhabited Easter Island, but there are far fewer clues about why this civilization mysteriously vanished. Did they shortsightedly exhaust the island's resources? Were they decimated by European illnesses and slave trade? Or did stow-away rats devastate the native ecosystem? Such theories have spread widely, but recent evidence shows that the truth is not as simple as any one of these alone.

"These different interpretations may be complementary, rather than incompatible," said Dr. Valentí Rull. "In the last decade, there's been a burst in new studies, including additional research sites and novel techniques, which demand that we reconsider the climatic, ecological and cultural developments that occurred." Rull is a senior researcher of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona, Spain, and the lead author of an overview on the holistic reassessment of Easter Island history.

Until recently, the evidence has been limited. Prior sedimentary samples--commonly used as historical records of environmental change--were incomplete, with gaps and inconsistencies in the timeline. Furthermore, past interpretations relied heavily on pollen alone, without incorporating more faithful indicators of climate change. Due to this uncertainty, many fundamental questions remain, not only about why the culture disappeared, but also precisely when these events occurred and how this civilization developed in the first place.

Using the latest analytical methods, Rull and his collaborators are beginning to shed light on many of these questions. Complete sedimentary samples now show a continuous record of the last 3000 years, showing how droughts and wet seasons may have influenced the island's population. Sea travel depended on such weather patterns, resulting in periods of cultural exchange or isolation. Rainfall also impacted native palm forests, with droughts potentially contributing to the island's eventual deforestation. Radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis of artifacts and human remains are also showing where the inhabitants lived on the island, what they farmed and ate, and the influence of cultures beyond their Polynesian ancestors.

"These findings challenge classical collapse theories and the new picture shows a long and gradual process due to both ecological and cultural changes. In particular, the evidence suggests that there was not an island-wide abrupt ecological and cultural collapse before the European arrival in 1722," said Rull.

There is much work yet to be done before this mystery is solved, but it is clear that neither environmental nor human activities are solely responsible for the events on Easter Island. Only a combined approach that encompasses climate, ecology, and culture will fully explain how this ancient civilization went extinct.

The article is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

EurekAlert. 2016. “What really happened on Easter Island?”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/f-wrh040716.php

Saturday, May 21, 2016

New discoveries into how an ancient civilization conserved water

Collection, storage and management of water were top priorities for the ancient Maya, whose sites in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala were forced to endure seven months out of the year with very little rainfall. As researchers expand their explorations of the civilization outside of large, elite-focused research site centers, aerial imagery technology is helping them locate and study areas that are showing them how less urbanized populations conserved water for drinking and irrigation. The NSF-supported research by Jeffrey Brewer, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati's Department of Geography, and Christopher Carr, a UC research assistant professor of geography, was presented at the 81st annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology. The meeting takes place April 6-10, in Orlando, Florida.

The UC researchers used a surveying technology called LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) - along with excavation data - to examine the spatial characteristics, cultural modifications and function of residential-scale water tanks - a little-investigated component of Maya water management by commoners versus the more powerful and visible elites, says Brewer.

LiDAR is a remote sensing technology that collects high-resolution imagery shot from an airplane at 30,000 points per second, allowing researchers to map ground surfaces through dense vegetation. The technology saves a significant amount of time in the field, compared with trekking through forests to locate these small depressions at ground level.

The specific area under study is the ancient Maya site of Yaxnohcah, located in the Central Yucatan. "One of the unique aspects of this particular site is that it appears to date a little earlier than many regional sites of the same size in terms of displaying significant cultural activity," says Brewer. "So, we're still at ground level with our discoveries here."

Although the LiDAR analysis revealed more than 100 potential small reservoirs scattered throughout the site, only five have been excavated so far. Brewer says three out of the five reservoirs appear to be water features based on the archaeological evidence.

"We looked specifically at small depressions that were adjacent to residential structures, and we could assume they were household accessible," explains Brewer. "We found modified reservoirs, a limestone quarry that would have served as a resultant water tank, and a depression that appears to have served as an area for localized horticulture or agriculture.

"Based on recovered ceramic material, we know that some of these residential-scale reservoirs at Yaxnohcah date to the Middle Preclassic period (around 900 B.C.). We also have evidence from the soil layers that shows these systems were lined with a thick, clay 'plaster' that would help them hold water," Brewer says. "The geology in this region is all limestone, so if they hadn't been modified or sealed in some way, the water would have just seeped through them."

Agricultural communities also would have needed water to farm maize, cotton and possibly even tubers, so Brewer says future examination will explore how the water features would have been used for agricultural purposes. "If the reservoir was elevated, it could have released water into agricultural fields for irrigation. If it was lower, it could have collected runoff from a paved surface or a field. We're still examining the elevation profiles."

Brewer adds that one of the depressions appears to have originated as a quarry for limestone, which would have been used in construction at the adjacent residential complex. Although not lined with clay, the resulting limestone tank floor could opportunistically hold water for the extended annual period that the region received very little rainfall - extremely useful for agricultural purposes if not for drinking water.

Brewer says investigating how the commoners existed at these ancient sites is becoming a growing trend in research among archaeologists, anthropologists and geographers.

EurekAlert. 2016. “New discoveries into how an ancient civilization conserved water”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 8, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/uoc-ndi040816.php

Friday, May 20, 2016

When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead? Part 2

Holy Ground

The Church of England gets more say than the Druids. When human remains are excavated from land under the Church’s jurisdiction, religious as well as secular laws apply.

The Church takes the theological position that “there is little in the Bible to suggest that Jesus had great concern for the human body and its remains after physical death,” adding that past and current Christian theologians are in agreement that “at the resurrection there is no literal reconstitution of the physical body.”

However, the Church also believes that, “The phrase ‘laid to rest’, being common parlance for burial, implies that remains should not be disturbed. The finality of Christian burial should therefore be respected even if, given the demands of the modern world, it may not be absolutely maintained in all cases.”

Indeed, in its perceived role as safeguarding the wishes of those laid to rest, the Church opposes the cremation of historic human remains that have been excavated. Although it is currently the most common means for the disposition of the dead in England, cremation was abhorred by Christians prior to the late 19th century.

Today, the Church permits the archaeological excavation of human remains with the provision that they will be reinterred in consecrated ground after the scientific analyses are completed.

But are scientific studies of excavated human remains ever truly completed? This is the most contentious issue in bioarchaeology. Some researchers view repatriation and reinterment as the willful destruction of scientific information.

“If you do not repatriate, and if you keep remains for years, then future generations will have the opportunity to learn from those remains,” says Mays. “If they are reburied, you’ll be denying that opportunity to future generations. That is ethically undesirable.”

Mays points to some of his own recent research as an example. He was studying human remains—three adults and 50 infants—excavated in 1921 from a Roman site in England. The archaeologists at the time focused on the adult skeletons, because the research question of the day was to look at the history of British populations. 

“They weren’t able to think of a use for the infant skeletons, but nevertheless they had the foresight not to rebury them, to keep them in a museum,” says Mays. “So I could come along 90 years later and do some DNA analysis on them, which, in fact, helped address some compelling archaeological questions.”

Mays was interested in the gender of the infant skeletons, who had been deliberately killed at birth. Quite a lot of societies practiced female-related infanticide. Was this also true of the Roman period?

“We found that there was a fairly balanced sex ratio between the males and the females,” says Mays. “So it really argues against this idea of female-leading infanticide in Roman Britain. We wouldn’t have learned that at all if these remains had been reburied. “

Mays says that even temporary reinterment speeds up the destruction of human skeletons. “If you imagine bones that have been laying for centuries undisturbed in soil, they reach a kind of equilibrium with the soil around them, so the deterioration tails off, as it were,” he says. “If you dig them up, and then rebury them in another place, you get this fresh round of deterioration.”

Archaeologists and the Church have found at least one way to compromise: Some bone collections are now stored in churches that are no longer in use. This fulfills the archaeologists’ desire to avoid reburial, while meeting the Church’s requirement that human remains be returned to sacred ground.

Next of Kin

For Native Americans—who have endured decades of having their ancestors’ looted remains displayed at museums and kept in storage—repatriation is both a religious and human rights issue.

“They do not ethically have the right to study ancestors of people who haven’t given their consent,” says Rae Gould, an anthropologist and repatriation representative for her tribe, the Nipmuc Nation in Massachusetts. “Just the idea that Native American ancestors are put in a category of being less than human, or being archaeological specimens, is beyond disrespectful.”

Since 1990, the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has required publicly funded agencies and institutions to return human remains held in their collections to culturally affiliated, federally recognized Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian groups.

“I introduced this legislation because I feel it does not simply address the return of Native American remains to their rightful resting place, or the matter of the protection of Indian graves in the future,” said Rep. Morris Udall, who served 30 years in Congress, when he gave a floor speech supporting the law. “It goes far beyond that. It addresses our civility, and our common decency. In the larger scope of history, this is a very small thing. In the smaller scope of conscience, it may be the biggest thing we have ever done.”

Some within the bioarchaeology community opposed NAGPRA, notably the renowned archaeologist and anthropologist Clement Meighan. He wrote a lengthy essay in 1993, “Burying American Archaeology,” that encapsulated his colleagues’ grievances. He attributed the rise of the repatriation movement to “New Age” sensibilities and “political correctness.” 

He also defended the scientific value of the “large quantity of bones tucked away in museum drawers and cabinets,” since advances in forensic science were continuously creating opportunities to extract greater amounts of data. 

“Even if it were true that the bones, once examined, need never be studied again,” repatriating bones removed any chance of correcting errors later, he said. 

In 2010, new NAGPRA rules allowed for the repatriation of culturally unaffiliated remains as long as they were found on tribal lands. That means bones that are thousands of years old—uniquely valuable in studying North American prehistory and human migration—could be taken from the scientific community and given to tribes that might not have a proven direct ancestral connection to the remains. 

“The idea of repatriating 10,000-year-old skeletal remains to the group that happens to be living in the vicinity where those remains were found is simply preposterous,” said Arizona State University paleontologist Geoffrey Clark, upon hearing of the new rules. 

Gould says that institutions have used arguments such as Clark’s to delay repatriation. “The heart of the law is demonstrating cultural affiliation, so they’ll tell us that these ancestors are 2,000 years old, therefore, they’re not related to you, therefore, we’re not going to repatriate them.”

From Gould’s perspective, even “4,000 to 5,000 years ago is not really that far back,” given that indigenous peoples have lived continuously in North America for more than ten thousand  years. 

As vindication, she cites the case of Kennewick Man—the 8,500-year-old skeletal remains found in Washington State in 1996. The results of DNA tests published in 2015 in Nature confirmed that Kennewick Man is “closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide” and that genetic comparisons show “continuity with Native North Americans over at least the last eight millennia.” The closest genetic match came from the Colville tribe living along the Northwest coast.

“Scientists were pushing for more science,” Gould says. “We got it for them.”

A more recent case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Three scientists at the University of California sought to block the repatriation of a pair of 9,500-year-old skeletons—among the oldest ever found in the Americas. 

The Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, representing 12 tribes, filed a claim for the remains in 2006, prompting a decade-long court battle that ended when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, allowing the decision of the lowers courts in favor of repatriation to stand. 

However, a spokesperson for the committee hasn’t ruled out letting the scientists study the bones. “These things we need to discuss,” he told the New York Times. “We want to be the ones who tell our own story.”

Larry Zimmerman is optimistic that these “bone wars” are already becoming a thing of the past. “In another couple of decades it won’t be an issue anymore,” he says. “The people who were fighting over repatriation will have been dead and buried, me included. I see so many of our younger bioarchaeologists who are just coming up who understand the issue. They are quite willing to work with Native Americans and many of them have been provided with more access than they ever imagined.”

Still, Gould wonders whether she will see the issue resolved in her lifetime. According to a recent report of the NAGPRA Review Committee, “74 percent of federal collections ready for repatriation are now back with tribes. But that number represents less than 10 percent of all Native American remains in museum and federal collections.” 

Worse, a Government Accountability Office report on NAGPRA compliance decried “poor curation practices by agencies and repositories, in general, along with poor historical records and documentation.” Human remains have been discovered in boxes stored in rooms with leaky roofs, or wrapped in old newspapers.

Why Do We Care?

Why do we care so much about the rights of the dead, who, by virtue of their non-living status, have no apparent opinion on the matter?

Some academics portray the issue as one of religion versus science. That’s certainly true in many cases, but not all of them. Those uncomfortable with the excavation of human remains don’t always express their distaste in religious terms. Even the Church of England, which concedes there is no theological basis for the protection of human remains, nevertheless feels obliged to safeguard them. 

Dan Davis says time is often the defining issue: “Time is the big washcloth that wipes away distinctions between uncovering a modern, 100-year-old body from a cemetery versus one that’s from 2,300 years ago.”  

Yet, he adds, time is relative in human affairs. The bodies in the wreckage of the Titanic, he notes, recently crossed the one-century threshold to be deemed “historic,” but “it still has this aura of being a grave site.” And, among peoples who see an unbroken continuity in their history, time measured in millennia has little meaning. 

For others, the treatment of human remains taps into historic injustices; an extension of racist, colonialist policies inflicted on indigenous peoples. 

“Particularly for groups that are currently or who historically have been marginalized and exploited, I think that we really do have to give greater weight to their wishes than to scientific endeavors,” DeWitte says. “They’re the reason why I work with dead Europeans and I don’t do work with the Native American populations.”  

Our views are also shaped by tradition. “I think that the idea [that] the only way to respect the dead is to place remains in a hole in the ground and cover them up is something that is very strong in Western European culture,” says Simon Mays. “It’s probably to do with the idea that you own a burial plot and the remains should stay there in perpetuity. This is something that only became widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries.” 

Above all else, when discussing human remains, the terms that most commonly emerge are “respect” and “decency.” How we deal with the dead is how we gauge our own humanity. It’s why, depending on one’s perspective, the excavation of the dead can be seen as an act of desecration or as an act in service to those who might otherwise be forgotten.

Strauss, Mark. 2016. “When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead?”. National Geographic News. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160407-archaeology-religion-repatriation-bones-skeletons/

Thursday, May 19, 2016

When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead? Part One

Human bones tell stories that would otherwise be lost to history. But archaeologists are increasingly confronted with demands to let past generations rest in peace.

Dan Davis watched on a video screen as an underwater robot explored a ship that had sunk to the bottom of the Black Sea. He was stunned to see bones appear in the wreckage. 

Davis, a marine archaeologist specializing in ancient Greek and Roman shipwrecks, wasn’t used to encountering human remains. Ancient ships were typically open decked, so most doomed sailors floated away when their vessels sank; and in any case, skeletons rarely survive long in the ocean environment. According to Davis, out of 1,500 ancient shipwrecks, only a few have been found to contain human remains.

Davis imagined the possibilities. “We could do scientific testing, maybe some DNA tests, to help us learn about these people who are virtually historically invisible,” he says. 

Davis later shared the video with his Greek archaeology students at Luther College. 

“Some of them said, ‘Oh, you should just leave those bones alone. Don’t recover them,’” Davis recalls.  “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! What? These poor students are misguided.’”

The expedition was unable to recover the bones, but, Davis got to thinking more about the question, and he did some research on how the ancient Greeks viewed the issue. “In Athens and other ancient cities, it was a crime to mess with human remains,” he says. 

Should that matter? Variations of the debate in Davis’ classroom are playing out across the United States and around the world. News stories about archaeologists unearthing and studying human remains inevitably prompt accusations of “grave robbing.”  “These people were buried with love and dignity by the people who cared most about them,” wrote one commentator on Facebook, responding to a National Geographic article about human remains excavated in Jamestown. “What gives anyone the right to dig them up and put their skeletons on display?” 

The objections often stem from religious beliefs and historic grievances, but the outrage is also driven by perceptions of indecency—the discomfort of disturbing a person’s final resting place to satisfy idle curiosity.

Yet “bioarchaeologists,” people who specialize in the analysis of human remains, often defy the stereotype of emotionally aloof scientists who treat skeletons as inanimate artifacts, no different than clay shards or stone tablets. 

These researchers are deeply aware that they are handling what was once a living person. They see themselves not only as scholars of the past, but as speakers for the dead, giving a voice to those whose stories might otherwise be lost to history. 

Still, ethical debates continue. At what age should a skeleton be considered prehistoric, or even just historic? 

Does it matter what the dead person’s religious beliefs were, or whether those religious beliefs still exist today? (See The Story of God with Morgan Freeman to explore how religions past and present deal with death.)

And there’s the most heated issue of all: the debate over repatriating and reburying human remains that are now held in museums or research labs. 

Some bioarchaeologists are staunchly opposed to returning bones to the ground. Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire, writes, “The destruction of human remains prevents future study; it is the forensic equivalent of book burning, the willful ruin of knowledge.” 

Native Americans blame such entrenched views for the slow repatriation of their ancestors’ remains, despite federal legislation mandating their return. The bones of thousands of individuals remain in storerooms—in one instance, an infant’s skeleton was found in an oatmeal box. 

Bioarchaeologists tend to agree that the days when “the pursuit of scientific knowledge” could be cited as the sole justification for studying human remains are at an end. 

“We’ve come to a point in American society that we recognize we do science for people,” says Larry Zimmerman, a bioarchaeologist at Indiana University, who has long been a proponent for the protection and repatriation of Native American remains. “Their concerns sometimes have to come first, even if it’s a matter of sacrifice from the scientific community’s side.”

Grave Concerns

Skeletons are time capsules that preserve the details not only of human lives, but of the era in which people lived. They can reveal the types of labor people performed. DNA analysis can help identify remains and reconstruct family trees or even patterns of human migration. Spectroscopic studies can tell us what people ate—and, by extension, what types of fauna and flora existed at the time. 

Bones also let us diagnose diseases such as the Black Death, which killed 20 percent of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Over the past decade, Sharon DeWitte, a bioarchaeologist at the University of South Carolina, has made regular visits to the Museum of London, where she examines their collection of skeletons excavated from a mass grave of plague victims buried beneath East Smithfield Road.

Her studies have implications for present-day epidemics. “A lot of people have assumed the Black Death killed indiscriminately,” DeWitte says. “It didn’t matter how healthy people were or if they were rich or poor, male or female—none of those things would’ve mattered.”

But the skeletons told a different story. DeWitte looked for occurrences of “non-specific stress markers”—signs of illness and malnutrition than can be found in bones and teeth. For instance, excess bone growth on a tibia or shinbone can indicate soft-tissue infections on the leg that spread to the bone.

Lines on the teeth can also record childhood illnesses. If a child is malnourished or suffering from a disease, enamel formation stops temporarily. But, if the child survives, it begins again. 

DeWitte concluded that people who already had been in poor health were more likely to die in the Black Death epidemic than healthy people. The mortality rate was also higher among older people than the young.

DeWitte’s work suggests ways to target efforts in future epidemics. “We should expect there to be some variation in risks based on biological and also social factors,” she says.

Although scholars have praised her work, a history professor wrote a journal article singling out DeWitte and her colleagues as “grave-robbing scientists.”

DeWitte believes this notion persists, in part, because of archaeology’s unseemly past. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeology was largely the provenance of wealthy explorers with a “finders-keepers” ethos and disreputable people hired by museums to acquire artifacts—including human remains—for their collections.  

Archaeology was also tainted by racism, as 19th century scholars sought Native American remains to prove their theories about the inferiority of non-whites. Graves were robbed, and the recently dead were taken from battlefields. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that professional archaeologists established comprehensive ethical guidelines.

Present-day bioarchaeologists, DeWitte says, strive to uphold those ethics. And, she argues, her chosen profession makes a unique contribution by correcting history’s oversights.  

“Written records are mostly biased towards wealthy individuals and men, especially if we’re talking about the medieval period,” she says. “If we want to know anything about the experience of women, children, and poor people, very often the only way we can get at that is by looking at skeletal data.”

The Druids Strike Back

Simon Mays, a British archaeologist and human skeletal biologist, tells a story about a phone call he got when somebody heard a rumor about an excavation in Yorkshire:

“Did you dig up my ancestors?”

No, responded Mays. 

“Oh, what a shame. We were hoping to learn something about our family history from you.” 

By and large, the British public supports the excavation of historic human remains. (Read "London's Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History")  But that view varies from country to country. In Israel, during the 1990s, ultra-orthodox Jews—who believe the human body should never be desecrated—rioted against the excavation and study of human remains. The law in Israel now stipulates that any Jewish remains found at an archaeological site must be transferred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for burial. 

Native Hawaiians believe bones are a connection between the spirit world and the physical world. But southern Europeans, Mays says, rarely oppose the excavation of human remains, since bodies are typically buried just long enough for them to decay, at which point the bones are removed from graves and placed in ossuaries.

Ultimately, when assessing the ethics of recovering human remains, the key issue, according to Indiana University’s Zimmerman, is whether “the stakeholders have a level of say in it, beyond just the stakeholders who are in the scientific community.” 

Or, put another way, since the dead have no say in the matter, researchers are obliged to consult those who have the closest ties to the departed.

That principle is reflected in laws adopted by U.S. states for regulating archaeological digs. While specific details vary, permission to excavate historic human remains generally requires obtaining permission from descendants, culturally affiliated groups, and other “interested parties.” Those same individuals also have a say in the disposition of the remains.  

England has adopted similar guidelines to determine when bones should be repatriated. That policy was put to an unusual test in 2006, when the Council of British Druid Orders demanded the reburial of prehistoric skeletons on display at a local museum in Wiltshire.

The skeletons, between 4,000 and 5,700 years old, were excavated at a Neolithic enclosure at Windmill Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Druids consider the skeletons to be their ancestors and argued that placing them in a museum was a violation of their beliefs. 

“Humanity is, after all, an integral part of nature, and to isolate any part of it in a clinically clean and static environment, to preserve it, is to deny the sanctity of nature: to block its course,” declared one Druid priest. 

Much to the surprise—and dismay—of several British scholars, the authorities responsible for repatriation took the Druid claims seriously, and agreed to place a moratorium on research requiring destructive sampling of the bones until the case had been settled. 

After four years of deliberation, the claim was denied. The Druid groups “don’t bear any stronger genetic relationship to the remains than anybody else in Britain, so they had no special links,” says Mays.

Part 2 tomorrow

Strauss, Mark. 2016. “When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead?”. National Geographic News. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160407-archaeology-religion-repatriation-bones-skeletons/

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Speaking two languages for the price of one

In everyday conversation, bilingual speakers often switch between languages mid-sentence with apparent ease, despite the fact that many studies suggest that language-switching should slow them down. New research suggests that consistency may allow bilingual speakers to avoid the costs that come with switching between languages, essentially allowing them to use two languages for the price of one.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"Our findings show that if bilinguals switch languages at the right times, they can do it without paying any cost," says study author Daniel Kleinman of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This goes against both popular belief and scientific wisdom that juggling two tasks should impair performance. But our results suggest that multi-tasking may be easier than it seems as long as people switch at the right times."

Kleinman and co-author Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego speculated that people may show different outcomes in the lab than they do in everyday conversations because lab studies typically require bilingual speakers to switch languages on command and at times when those switches are likely to be inefficient. If bilingual speakers were allowed to choose a language for a particular object or concept and then stick with it, the researchers hypothesized, they might be able to switch between languages without slowing down.

In other words, consistently using English to say "dog" and Spanish to say "casa" over the course of a conversation that toggles between the two languages could eliminate the costs that typically come with language-switching.

Across two studies, a total of 171 bilingual university students completed a picture-naming task. The participants, who spoke English and Spanish fluently, were presented with a series of black-and-white drawings of objects organized in four separate blocks.

In one block, the participants were instructed to name each picture in whichever language was easier and to stick with that language every time that particular picture appeared. In another block, the participants were given a cue that told them which language to use in naming each picture. And in the remaining two blocks, the participants were instructed to use only English or only Spanish to name the objects displayed.

The results showed that consistency is key: Participants didn't slow down when switching languages between pictures as long as they consistently used the same language each time a particular picture appeared.

Switching languages between pictures noticeably slowed their response times, however, when they followed cues telling them which language to use to name each picture, or if they did not follow the instruction to be consistent about which language they used for each picture.

But additional findings suggest that bilingual speakers don't necessarily use consistency as a strategy on their own. When participants were free to choose which language to use, language-switching led to slower response times because most speakers didn't consistently associate each picture with a particular language.

These findings show that even experienced language-switchers have room for improvement.

"Although bilinguals have been switching between languages for their entire lives, the strategies they use to decide when to switch may vary depending on context," Kleinman explains. "While speakers may sometimes adopt switching strategies that incur costs, these studies show that all bilinguals can be redirected quickly and easily to switch for free."

Science Daily. 2016. “Speaking two languages for the price of one”. Science Daily. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160407083739.htm