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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 May 2004, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Science speaks out on bone return
By Robert Pigott
BBC News religious affairs correspondent

Cohuna skull, Natural History Museum
A government announcement is expected in the next few weeks
Anthropologists say their discipline may be plunged into crisis if thousands of human remains stored in the UK are sent back to their countries of origin. An advisory group has recommended scientists seek out descendants for permission to retain bones and other body parts up to 500 years old.

A special panel could also be set up to settle cases in which researchers and claiming individuals dispute ownership.

Ministers are expected to announce their position on the issue shortly.

'Obliterated forever'

At the University of Cambridge department of biological anthropology, Professor Robert Foley showed me the laboratory where he and colleagues have worked on bones to map human evolution.

In glass cabinets on the wall are a tiny proportion of the 18,000 separate sets of remains held by the university.

In cardboard boxes, brought up from the climate-controlled storerooms, are several others, including the 400-year-old skeletons of slender, fleet-footed, hunter-gatherer Native Americans.

It's often rare, from populations that are long gone, which no longer exist, so it's a whole part of the human story that would be obliterated and gone forever
Professor Robert Foley, University of Cambridge
Professor Foley fears that if the recommendations of the Human Remains Working Group currently being considered by ministers are followed up, much of the evidence he has worked with will be lost.

"It would be an enormous blow; one would be losing material that is often unique," he told BBC News Online.

"It's often rare, from populations that are long gone, so it's a whole part of the human story that would be obliterated and gone forever."

The advisory group said scientists such as Professor Foley should have to examine how the collections held in their institutions came into their possession.

They should then have to seek out any possible living descendants to get their permission to keep them or to continue to use them in research.

In the absence of living relatives, permission should be obtained from others in the same cultural or belief group.

Professor Foley says universities and museums are often unsure exactly where remains came from, and seeking out the nearest thing to descendants would place a crippling burden on researchers.

Report support

Not all anthropologists agree, however. Marilyn Strathern, professor of social anthropology at Cambridge, served on the working group and supported its majority report.

Professor Strathern says we live in a political era which prefers to enforce best practice rather than relying on the good intentions of professional people.

We also live in a globalised world, and cannot deny the same standards to people overseas, she argues.

"Don't choose this area to start fussing about the accountability and burden of proof and all the rest of it," she added.

Kennewick man, AP
In the US rows have erupted between scientists and Native people
"It would be almost repeating the past as far as aboriginal cultures are concerned, if we say that in this area we don't need to impose burdens on ourselves."

It is also concern about our past treatment of those indigenous groups in "far-off lands" that has prompted the soul-searching now going on.

"We're thinking of theft of a very brutal nature," said Professor Strathern.

"Bodies were dug up from graves, taken off battlefields, butchered on the spot - that's no more or less brutal than what happened here in this country. But that abuse - to borrow a late 20th Century term - that abuse does weigh with people and we need to know they are affected by it."

They are doubly affected, the argument goes, if they belong to cultures which believe that the body leaves an imprint on the place where it lived. And you should not discount such feelings just because - particularly if you live in the West - the fate of the body after death does not mean quite so much anymore.

Sensitive ruling

But the ruling could come at a sensitive moment. Dr Jay Stock relies entirely on studying bone for his work on the diversification of human beings.

All of us, from the Japanese tea-girl to the Pennsylvania coalminer, share a common ancestor in Africa about 150,000 years ago.

Dr Stock says scientific techniques to investigate the genetic and chemical makeup of bones are starting to reveal vast new bodies of information. He fears much of the evidence could be soon buried.

"I think it would be catastrophic", Dr Stock said. "With all the factors that influence bone tissue, right now we can only interpret a small fraction of the potential.

"If it were a book, we could only read the introduction - so we have a general idea of the information and what's coming ahead but we don't know the details and only developments in technology and improvements in our ability to interpret them will help that."

Much of the material in Cambridge - as elsewhere in the UK - was collected by 19th Century explorers, at a time when scientific inquiry was highly valued.

A number of scientists fear some of the changes that may be coming. They worry that emotional and spiritual interests may take priority over rational inquiry.

Science wins ancient bones battle
05 Feb 04 |  Americas
Aborigines back UK bones panel
05 Nov 03 |  Science/Nature
Science argues to keep bones
16 May 03 |  Science/Nature

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