The Politics of Old Bones

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The Politics of Old Bones
Alan G. Morris Professor: Department of Human Biology Inaugural lecture in the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town. 14 October, 2008 I am usually very confused as to what to call myself when someone asks me about my specialty. Sometimes I call myself a ‘physical anthropologist’, sometimes a ‘human biologist’. On an occasion I call myself an ‘anatomist’, but not often, and now-a-days I frequently identify myself as a ‘forensic anthropologist’. Why all of the confusion? What is in a name anyway?

The reason for my uncertainty is my own background. I trained in an Anatomy Department, but my PhD research topic on skeletal biology involved archaeology and social anthropology. On top of that, my original background was in zoology and because of that I tend to think of humans in an evolutionary sense as well as an anthropological one. In fact, I am not unhappy being confused, because to really understand humans you need to ‘cross some wires’ and look at your subject from all angles. Because of that, no one name fits me terribly well.

But having said that, not everyone thinks that what I do for a living is respectable. For a significant and very vocal group here in Cape Town, anyone who studies the physical remains of humans is not a legitimate scientist. The cause of this is not what I have done, but what was done before me.

In the Shadow of Race Science The 19th century European system of anthropological science defined ‘Anthropology’ as the field that studies human bodies and concerned itself with racial differences and evolution. It was deeply concerned with race and begat a field of study called ‘race science’ that flowered in the early 20th century and which for the most part died a timely death just after the 2nd World War.


As it developed in the 19th century, race science made an important assumption. Race and culture were said to be intertwined, and that a person’s behaviour, language and intelligence were determined by his race. The race scientists believed that once they had unlocked the code of racial origins, what they called the ‘type’, then it would be possible to predict how people would behave based on their type. The culmination of this approach was not just the monstrosity of the Nazi scientific ideology of the 1930’s, but also the American and British immigration policies and criminal anthropology in the first half of the century, and Soviet ethnology and South African apartheid in the second half of the century.

The big break with the past came in 1951 when the United Nations published a statement on ‘race’ that rejected race science and the classification of human types on which it was based. In many ways this document was a reaction to the excesses of the past decades of racial science and therefore much of its content was more political than biological. But a new way of scientific thinking had begun and progressive physical anthropologists began to reject the old typological racial categories and the baggage that came with them. The Americans have called this transformation “the New Physical Anthropology”. Scientists remained interested in differences between people, but the focus now shifted to the ‘process’ of change rather than the ‘description’ of variation. Race was no longer the central element of study and the new studies looked at population dynamics and the impact of culture on biology – not the other way round. Whole new fields of study developed, including demography, cultural ecology, and human growth studies. The New Physical Anthropology still studied groups of people, but it concentrated on the features that united humanity rather than divided it.

This was the anthropology that I learned as a student of Phillip Tobias in Johannesburg in the middle 1970’s. Humans were shaped by a combination of genetics and environment, but in order to understand that mechanism of the shaping, you needed to know not just the social and biological contexts of people, but also the history of the science so that you would not repeat the mistakes of the past.


But the public knowledge of physical anthropology to a large extent has remained unaware of the changes that have occurred in this transformation. There are still activist social scientists who believe schools like Wits and UCT are centres of ‘racial science’. This came to a head during the excavation of the Prestwich Street remains in 2003 and 2004 and resulted in a situation where a whole series of archaeological skeletons have been excavated but not studied. Why did this happen?

For the most part, the activist social scientists have found it convenient to imagine that physical anthropology today is the same as it was 50 years ago. Certainly during the apartheid years the South African universities were racially segregated and government funded but that did not mean that they were part and parcel of the apartheid racism. That was certainly not the case at UCT where studies of human variation were firmly in the mold of the ‘New Physical Anthropology’. The Human Biology course, launched for medical students in 1982 taught the history of race classification and its meaning in modern South Africa, demographic trends in Africa in general and South Africa in particular, clinical genetics in South Africa and social problems in contemporary South Africa, including migrant labour, urban squatting and the impact of government legislation on people’s lifestyles and access to health care.

There is a myth amongst social scientists that because physical anthropology no longer accepts the concept of race, that human variation somehow doesn’t exit. This is a failure to understand current scholarship in the field and demonstrates an almost shameful ignorance of biology. Overall, South African physical anthropologists have not been very successful in popularising their field. Although such topics as human evolution and forensics are well known, most people do not realise that this is all part and parcel of understanding human variation. Despite the social scientists claiming from the roof tops that “race does not exit”, the average South African not only still perceives his fellow South Africans in

4 racial context but almost never hears any real debate about the meaning of physical differences (and similarities) between people.

What I would like to do in the next half hour or so is to take you through some of this debate as it affects old bones from heritage and forensic sites. I unashamedly want to show you what we can contribute and where I think we are going.

A tale of chiefs and commoners

One of the big shake-ups in archaeology in the last two decades has been the development of a new approach to dealing with human remains. Whereas in the past it was perfectly feasible for human burials to be excavated for the sole purpose of gathering information, today there is a protocol that tries to balance the search for knowledge with the broader ethical issues generated by the disturbance of burials. Such guidelines as the “Vermillion Accord” do not prevent excavation, but they demand that the archaeologists work in conjunction with descendant communities. Archaeologists are compelled to seek contact with indigenous peoples when planning and executing archaeological research. They are also required to respect the wishes of the descendant communities on the excavation and deposition of the human remains. Researchers and relatives are asked to reach an agreement in which both the wishes of the descendant communities and the legitimate concerns of science and education are negotiated.

In South Africa this debate has seen the implementation of ‘best practice’ guidelines by the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA) and specific practice guidelines by South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). Heritage Resources now requires that upon the discovery of an archaeological burial, all excavation stops for a period of 60 days while a formal attempt to locate descendant communities takes place. Once interested parties have been identified, then SAHRA facilitates an agreement about excavation, storage and commemoration, ultimately resulting in a reburial in a specified place and time. SAHRA’s system looks good on

5 paper, but in practice it has been open to abuse by those parties who wish to manipulate it to their own ends.

Lets examine two of these heritage cases – one where science is seen as a collaborator in the recollection of heritage, while in the other it was seen as an enemy.

During the winter of 2005, the current Chief Fadana of the Transkei dreamed that his illustrious forebearer, also called Chief Fadana, came to him to ask for his body to brought back to the Transkei for burial. The earlier Fadana was one of eight Xhosa leaders imprisoned on Robben Island in the 1860’s, and it was his lot to have died there. The younger Fadana approached the Robben Island Museum and SAHRA to ask how this feat could be accomplished, and in September 2005 a joint team from the Universities of Pretoria and Cape Town spent a week on Robben Island searching for Fadana’s remains. With the Museum’s facilitation, the team worked closely with the family and their sangomas to search the ground where the dream Fadana had indicated his body was buried. The Fadana family called the shots, but sadly, three excavations in four days failed to locate the body. When I reported our failure to find the body under the direction of the sangomas to my colleagues in the Department of Human Biology during tea, most of them thought this was hilariously funny and wrote off the expedition as failure. But I begged to differ. Not only did we set a precedent with the Robben Island Museum paying the costs, but my students got to spend five days on a national monument staying in the old guard’s houses and having free access to all sites on the island. When I asked my 15 colleagues in our tea room how many had even been to Robben Island, only 2 of my South African co-workers had been there. Most important of all, the group of us from Cape Town and Pretoria were not doing some academic exercise, but were part of the process and were in the service of the traditional leaders.

The service to traditional leaders has played out a number of times. Not only did we look at the cranium said to be Hintsa’s head at the request of the Royal House of the Transkei, but the University of Pretoria group actually excavated the remains of Chief Sandile to confirm that he was indeed buried whole and his head was where it should be. Again and

6 again, our physical anthropology team has been seen to be a useful player providing expertise where needed.

But a different episode in 2003 was not been so pleasant. In June of that year, I had been called by Forensic Pathology to have a look at some bones that were exposed on the side of a construction project in Green Point. They were obviously archaeological and looked similar to the bones I had seen in my own excavation nearby at Cobern Street in 1994. I recommended that SAHRA be notified immediately and that began a process that resulted in the excavation of the Prestwich Place cemetery by the Archaeology Contracts Office. The Prestwich site was identified as one of the 18th century cemeteries of Cape Town and when the excavation was done, over 1200 complete skeletons were discovered along with a significant number of partial skeletons disturbed during the 18th century interment process. The people buried there were the underclass of Cape Town – slaves, ‘free-blacks’, sailors – in fact anyone who was excluded from settler society. [Cobern news clip January 1995] The request for excavation did not come from the archaeologists. It was the owner and developer of the land who did not want to build his new structure on top of the dead of a previous century, but the 60 day process of identifying possible descendants quickly took this request for excavation in another direction. There was little debate about who was buried on the site, but a group of activists claimed ‘ownership’ on the basis of the poverty and exclusion of the people who were buried there. The public meetings, and more importantly the SAHRA facilitated meetings of ‘interested parties’, quickly deteriorated into slanging matches about who was going to benefit from the profits of the development. There were distinct racial overtones. The developer was seen as a white person about to make a financial killing by evicting the earlier oppressed people from the land in which they were buried. These same people were oppressed in life by the white colonial settlers and were now being oppressed in death by the same people. The demand of the activists was to stop all excavation and to turn the cemetery into a place of memorial. The acrimony resulted in a new process in which the Department of Arts and Culture made a ministerial level decision about what was to be done. In the end, the excavations continued and the new structure was completed, but the developers funded

7 the construction nearby by of a memorial mausoleum in which not only were the human remains to be stored, but would also act as memorial museum to the people of old District One in Cape Town.

But sadly, the one area excluded from this new agreement was the study of the human remains. The activists raised the old ‘straw man’ of the race scientist and bluntly refused to allow even the most basic assessment of who was buried on the site. My students and I tried everything we could to show them how we could decipher a wealth of information about health, lifestyle and demography from the skeletons, but to no avail. The same kind of bigotry was not evident away from this particular group of activists. My student at the time, Jacqui Friedling, gave talks at schools in her home suburb of Belhar and was overwhelmed by the interest and response of both the students and teachers. The University of Pretoria team excavated and studied a set of 19th century mine-labourer skeletons from a municipal trench in Kimberley with the co-operation and interest of the living community. My own dealings with the Khoisan descendants in Kimberley and Cape Town has been marked by a desire to right the wrongs of the past with reburial when possible, but this has always been matched by a desire to learn as much as possible before the reburial occurred. The ultimate personal slap in the face for me came at the end of 2005 when Jacqui Friedling, Thabang Manyaapelo and I received a letter from SAHRA dis-inviting us from being part of the process of memorialisation of the Prestwich Project. The wording of the letter is important. The call for proposals advertised for Human Biologists along with a range of other specialists, and specifically requested that the proposal for inclusion “should tell the stories of the people who were buried there and how they connect to current communities”. These were almost the exact words that we had been using in our own writings. Our rejection letter told us that our proposal “failed to address or respond to the provisions and terms of reference as stipulated”. The hand of the then Acting Director of the District Six Museum is evident here. She told us in one of our meetings that “Physical Anthropology cannot provide anything of value to this study”. That this ignorant and ill-informed opinion can have been recognised in any way reflects extremely badly on the senior management of SAHRA.


I will not presume to speak for my students who all have their own strong opinions about this matter, but I remain deeply hurt by SAHRA’s decision. The loss of information is the destruction of a heritage that is mine as well as other people’s.

Some Good News from the study of Death: The TRC and Police Forensics

At the exact same time that SAHRA was bending to the political manipulations of the Prestwich activists, we did receive permission from SAHRA to proceed on another matter where are our skills were both appreciated and desperately needed. Starting in 2004, the Missing Persons Task Team of the National Prosecuting Authority began to search for the remains of anti-apartheid activists killed during the struggle for democracy. One of the problems was that the old apartheid government had arranged for the freedom fighters that they had killed to be buried as unknown paupers in municipal cemeteries. The old government’s objective was to prevent funerals that could become political rallies!

The task team drew in South African forensic anthropology experts from Wits, Pretoria and Cape Town along with the Argentine NGO Forensic Team (EAAF). The object of the task team’s activities was to identify missing people from TRC testimony, use existing documents and police reports to locate burials in cemeteries, to organise forensic investigation to confirm identification and identify events at death if possible and finally to return the remains to living relatives.

This ongoing project is quite different from the police forensics that is a more routine occupation of ours because it aligns itself with human rights and restitution as much as identification of the dead. My students have taken a major role in these projects and continue to part of the excavations. A critical issue here is that we have needed to learn a great deal about how to deal with the media. All of the activities of the Missing Persons Task Team are done in the full glare of publicity. Families are invited to come to the grave side to witness the excavations and the press is given regular updates. The end of

9 the process is a very public reburial. The press is part of the process, but it can often go off in unexpected directions, including over reading the data such as in the case of the Pebco 3. In this very recent case, the loose association of burn human bones with burned tyre fragments suggested the horror of necklacing to the Press, but in fact there was no link between the bones and the charred rubber. Although not part of the TRC hearings, the exposé on eTV in April 1999 about the skeletons from southern Namibia is a case in point where the Press was desperate to make a political connection. These bones were part of an eroded old cemetery near Luderitz, but eTV desperately tried to get the Herero to claim the identity so that they could turn an interesting news item into a Holocaust debate. eTV crossed the line from reporting news to manufacturing news.

The students from Cape Town have taken on a special role with the TRC work and we have begun to build up a significant core of physical anthropology trained forensics students. The TRC work is a service commitment, but much of the training is from archaeological and police forensic cases. The clearance of cemeteries is something that seems to be happening on an increasing basis around the country and my students have helped to excavate in Paarl, Franchhoek and Grahamstown. In each of these cases the object is to excavate the human remains, record basic information as far as possible, and then ready the remains for re-burial. We also do regular forensic cases for police via the State Pathology service in the Western Cape. I recently supervised a Special Studies Project by Laura Brummer, 2nd year Medical Student here at UCT. Laura collected all of the information on the forensic cases we have done over the last couple of decades and has illustrated very nicely the kind of work we do. By her calculation, 30% of the cases that come from State Pathology are actually archaeological. The rest represent the range of people who go missing but also those who are murdered and whose bodies are dumped in difficult to access locations. We have already seen 16 cases in 2008, of which 6 were of archaeological origin.

So where to in the future? I have been extremely fortunate to have both colleagues and students who continuously pull me forward in this research. Even after the Prestwich debacle, I continue to work closely with the archaeologists and I live in hope that at some

10 stage there will be cooler heads in SAHRA and eventually we will be able to gather some information about those particular skeletons. But in the meantime we have concentrated on other sites, both historic and prehistoric. All of us are learning about the political power of old bones with each new case and situation, but this is not a bad thing. It is just the nature of the subject and something that we need to be constantly aware of.

New projects have been launched on radiographic age estimation of skeletons using the LODOX technology in our own Department of Human Biology. I am still pushing my colleagues at the University of the Western Cape to launch an ancient DNA project and I live in hope. We are also looking toward palaeopathology by linking with the Americanbased ‘Global History of Health Project’. We are part of the African leg and hope to be gathering data on health dynamics from skeletal remains to paint a changing picture of disease over the past ten millennia.

It is now time to consolidate and redirect some of the research. There are more students than ever before interested in physical anthropology, perhaps because of the draw from the CSI television programmes, but the result is that we have a critical mass of students and they are in a way taking the lead. My group that has been working with the TRC has joined with other students from upcountry and are keen to start an ‘African Forensic Anthropology Team’ modeled on the Argentine Forensic Unit they have been working with. They envision a group of expert forensic anthropologists who could be called upon to work on human rights cases throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

I would very much like to see a broader concept of forensic science instituted in the Faculty of Health Sciences, of which my skeletal biologists would be part. We have talked about this for some time and now that Forensic Anthropology has finally been recognised as a specialty within State Health, we have the opportunity to try to place our students in a more formal employment role in the future. Forensic pathology and forensic anthropology are inseparable and I look forward to developments within our Faculty that help to unify these fields.

11 But ultimately the future will be our students, both those that have already been through the system and those that we hope to attract in the next few years. I want to specially acknowledge the team of students over the past few years. Those who have graduated; Jacqui Friedling, Thabang Manyaapelo, Sven Machers, Lauren Joshua, Tasneem Salie, Nistha Daya: and those who are still studying; Nhlanhla, Dlamini, Lache Rossouw, Kundi Dembetembe, Belinda Roff, Brandon van der Watt, and Scott Noy.

That last word goes to Liz and Leigh. Thanks for being.

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