Don’t buy human remains

I was interviewed by Kristy Cameron for the Evan Solomon Show (radio) today. It was about my perspective on this story  about a federal candidate for election who bought a human skull as a gift for her boyfriend. Short answer:

Don’t buy human remains.

In anticipation of the interview, I wrote some notes about what I wanted to say, which I’m pasting here below:

What are the ethical issues?

– there are several ethical problems with giving a skull as a gift, and they circle around what a skull is, and where these remains come from, and how they come to be traded:

1. the skull was a human person. Trading skulls reduces people to mere things.
2. many of these skulls are on the market largely as a result of white people collecting non-white people, robbing graves, collecting the bones of slaves, of prisoners, for the purposes of ‘scientific racism’, of proving the superiority of one race over another.
3. Even skulls from ‘european’ sources: did they consent? Of course not.
4. a skull is not a ‘thing’, it is a person: to many indigenous groups from whose members many human remains were stolen, to not be buried and accorded respect and dignity as appropriate to the group is a continuing harm to the group.
5. the skull has no archaeological context – the exact knowledge of the conditions of burial, the other objects or scientific information that allows us to work out the meaning of objects from the past – so the trade destroys knowledge about the past
6. from what we can see in the photograph, (Damien Huffer & I) there are some indications that make us suspicious about how this skull came to be on the market. For one thing, there looks to still be dirt on it. The skull itself seems to be flaking, which can be caused by alternating wet/dry or freeze/thaw conditions. There is also a chip on the skull that looks quite recent and doesn’t look like it was caused by an animal or natural causes; my first thought is maybe a pick or tool, as there also looks to be root marks on the skull. So, given the photograph, we think there’s reason to be concerned that this skull might only have recently been dug up. We have seen videos on Facebook of recent graves being opened. Ms. Rattée says she has documentation that it is European in origin, but that’s no guarantee.

How are they sold?

– these are bought and sold on instagram, facebook, and other social media marketplaces. Skulls were bought and sold through shops long before social media, but social media increases the reach and size of the market. Facebook of course makes money from ads served alongside these posts, so it’s in FB’s interests to facilitate the reach and ‘engagement’ with the posts.

What are my thoughts on the situation?

– it is not illegal to buy and sell human remains in Canada, but I feel it ought to be simply by virtue of the fact that we owe it to our fellow Canadians, Indigenous Canadians, to try to right some of the wrongs we have done in the name of ‘science’. Harlan Smith, the ‘father of BC archaeology’, robbed graves in the 19th century and sent the remains to new york to go into a museum. He knew what he was doing was wrong: there’s no excuse. Social media makes human remains into entertainment. If a potential politician sees no problem with buying and selling a dead human, that does not speak well to their judgement regarding living humans.

– as far as using the skull as a model: a resin cast is surely a good enough model for drawing skulls on skin.

(featured image: israel palacio on unsplash)

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