Book Review: The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (Pt. 3 of ‘Headhunters…’ Series)
As part of the Head Hunters series, I asked some brilliant anthros to write reviews for a couple of books that deal with issue of anthropologists and our relationships with skulls.
Review by Kristy Winter, Anthropologist, Queensland University
The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead by Ann Fabian.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (October 15, 2010) 288 pages, $20.97 USD Kindle version, ISBN-10: 0226233480
The collection of human remains is a heavily controversial topic. “The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead” focuses on the life and inquiry of Philadelphia naturalist Samuel George Morton, his colleagues, and the practice of collecting human remains mostly specific to the 19th century America. This book aims to draw light on “the tension between skull size as measures of racial difference and as markers of common humanity”. Fabian has managed to develop a wonderful narrative around Morton’s life, however, has skirted around the problematic aspects of human remains collections at the point in history where there seemed to be limited ethical and moral awareness of the practice. While topics and themes were mentioned, they were not analysed nor was a clear statement on the racist roots specified – leaving the book to fall short of its intended aim.
Fabian starts by following and outlining the profession of Morton, a natural scientist from the 19th century. His education, collection, and opinions on the concept of race are outlined to the reader early on within the book, with tangents covering his colleagues and other natural scientists from the same period. It can be noted that there are many interconnecting pieces within this work, providing a fairly holistic view of the collectors in the 19th century. From this, the book explores other collectors and collections, eventually touching on the return of some human remains to final resting places. Unfortunately, this book does not land in a solid ending – as the unethical collection of human remains is an ongoing practice.
To play to its strengths, this book is meticulously researched. You can tell the author is familiar with historical and archival research, as there is a huge amount of knowledge provided alongside additional information about the lives of colleges and the environment in which these events took place. It is very clear to the reader that Fabian is an experienced and well-versed historian. Fabian presents the narrative of the book in an informed way but removed obvious opinions in order for the reader to develop their own. A talent not many have achieved.
Unfortunately, strengths can also play into weaknesses. Seeing that Fabian is a historian and not an anthropologist, there are some barriers within the topic that were not addressed. The collection of human remains (without informed consent) is a very unethical practice. A strong stance against the practice should have been stated and discussed throughout the book. Whereas, Fabian seemed to not directly address this. Additionally, there were underlying themes of racism and colonialism that were not explicitly discussed in detail. With such a controversial topic, steeped in centuries of damaging practice, it was odd that Fabian tried to remain neutral. The inclusion of quotation marks around scientific racism gives the impression that this is a debatable topic, when it is not.
Personally, this is not a book I would recommend without providing additional context and the opportunity for discussion about ethics. The book is incredibly well written and well researched, however, without looking at this book through the specialist lens of a death care worker (someone who handles human remains) it can be problematic. The lack of a clear stance on the collection of human remains is dangerous, and one could argue that this is being willfully ignorant of the greater picture. The racist and colonial themes and actions discussed in the book benefit from the lack of specific details of the harm done to BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Colour) and marginalised populations. This needs to be clearly addressed every time, we cannot ignore the damage that the profession has caused for the sake of educational or research advancement. While Fabian did mention and skirt around the topics throughout the book, I believe it was not enough.
To touch more on what I mean, a person cannot own another individual. From a forensic anthropology perspective: human remains are treated as that person, and thus they cannot and should not be the property of another. Without these clear boundaries outlined, this book can give the impression that collecting human remains for “science” is deemed as okay. We know that Morton was collecting skulls of different populations to test his theory that white skulls were superior to all others – a heavily racist theory that is incorrect. Moreover, when he died, his family and colleagues did not add his skull to the collection. The phrase “… they would have never taken his head …” (Location 144, Kindle) and context around his death demonstrates that they knew that what they were doing in the name of “science” was potentially unethical or amoral. However, they were willing to carry out collecting BIPOC and people from marginalised populations readily as if there was no problem. If we do not address this behaviour openly as unethical and wrong, the practice of collecting human remains (without informed consent) will continue to happen, disproportionally affecting BIPOC and marginalised communities time and time again.
If we are to learn anything from this book, or even this book review, please do not collect human remains. There are institutions today that accept body donations (with informed consent) from individuals and their families for research and teaching. They are held to extremely high standards ethically and legally, but they are aware that they do not own the remains – they are merely temporary caretakers of the remains. If you wish to read up on body donation, please ask your local university, health care provider, or the Rockstar Anthropologist for more details.