Fair-ish and Balanced-ish
Friday, February 06, 2004
According to the BBC scientists are going to be able to study the Kennewick Man. For those of you who don't know, the Kennewick Man is an ancient (approx. 9000 year old) skull which was found in Washington.
It's discovery sparked a court case from local Indian tribes, who claimed the skull as a distant relative and wanted it to be reburied.
Personally, I think that the courts ruling was a good one. Because of the age of the specimen, it can't really be said that he belongs to any one culture. Migration and cultural evolution build up over time, and 9000 years is a very very long time. On the other hand, the skull is useful for scientists trying to work out the ancient history of North America.
Another example is the much older Mungo man from Australia. The passage of time has distorted any cultural links beyond recognition (indeed, not even the Mungo man's genes have been passed on). Yet the scientific information which has so far been extracted is massive.
The picture, however becomes much more complicated when we look at human remains which are younger. In these cases, the cultural links are stronger and more well defined, the the potential information which can be gleaned is considerable less.
I don't know the answer. I'm all for sending back human remains from aging museum collections, if the relatives request it. The scientific value is generally negligible and the remains are frequently quite important to the relatives.
I don't really have a firm conclusion to whack onto the end of this post, it's more just a collections of late night thoughts. There isn't really a good set of rules for what to do with human remains. Common sense and lots of consultation between all interested parties is probably the best (partial) solution.