Another view of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. (Image credit: National Park Service)

Head Hunters: Anthropology and the Skull Obsessed! Part 2

Gustaf Nordenskiöld, the young Swede Collector

This is not exactly the historical tale of a headhunter. However, this scientist did take human remains and artifacts of Native Americans without permission. His actions became the catalyst for the earliest iteration of historical preservation law in the United States, so I decided to include him over some of the more well-known “headhunters.”

Gustaf Nordenskiöld was a young Swedish scholar and aristocrat who studied the ancient Pueblo artifacts and material culture in southwest Colorado in a place called Mesa Verde.

A color picture of a large sandstone ruins, with green trees below and blue sky above
Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Rationalobserver

It’s understood that Mesa Verde has the largest known cliff dwelling in North America, and was inhabited by nomadic Indigenous groups until about 1300 when the site was left after a decades-long drought.

Nordenskiöld, born into a family of scientists and explorers, was trained as a botanist and geologist and had a deep interest in archaeology. In 1891, he sailed into New York and began his tour of North America. Letters to his parents show that he had planned to travel the world, but about a month into his North American tour, Nordenskiöld arrived in Colorado and made plans to stay. He heard about an interesting site constructed of sandstone. Soon, he would partner with a local ranching family, the Wetherill’s, who could also be considered amateur archaeologists, to start the first archaeological excavation of the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.

Nordenskiöld wasn’t the first to visit the dwellings. People had been going to the site, stealing artifacts and goods form the dwellings for years. Nordenskiöld amassed quite a number of items, including human remains, from the area and planned to travel with them back to Finland. Objections from the then-residents in the area led to his arrest. However, the arrest was only an inconvenience for Nordenskiöld. At the time, there were no laws that stopped him from looting the site. The residents really seemed to only object to a foreigner being allowed to take the artifacts out of the country. However, “it took a month before a court ruled he hadn’t broken any law and could take the artifacts. That led to an artifact rush on the Southwest that saw many items spirited away. It was a grand theft of archaeological sites that continues today.

A ceramic pot from the collection of Gustaf Nordenskiold, which he took from Colorado. (Photo provided by Museum of Cultures)
Artifacts taken from Mesa Verde are coming home
Gustaf Nordenskiöld Image via Dr. Gustaf Arrhenius and the Nordenskiöld family

Nordenskiöld sent over 600 artifacts from the area to Finland which remained at the Museum of Culture. In addition to 100s of tools and pottery, Nordenskiöld took funerary goods and human remains (not pictured here). Like Browne and Haddon, Nordenskiöld claims that he feared the site and its artifacts were unprotected, and continual looting of the site would lead to the eventual and complete loss of history. So, he said he took them for preservation. Two years after his excavation, he published his study on the area, which was the first scientific study about the dwellings and site at Mesa Verde.

And so, again, we are left with a complicated legacy in science and anthropology. Nordenskiöld, who had tuberculosis, died by the age of 27, so he was not alive for the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906 (pre- NAGPRA). Signed under Roosevelt, it was the first United States law to establish some kind of general protection for national historic preservation and prohibited the looting of archaeological/ cultural sites. This law was spurred by the controversy of Nordenskiöld’s actions. Mesa Verde was also made a national park. This is not the end.

Last year, in 2019, some 128 years later, after the efforts of descendent tribes of the ancestral Puebloan people, the Finnish government made a public statement that the human remains and funeral objects collected by Nordenskiöld would be returned.

Ernest House Jr., a member of the area’s Ute Mountain Ute tribe, was interviewed about the repatriation of some of the goods and the human remains that Nordenskiöld took.

“To think that in 1891, his interest, whether good or bad and whatever, would relate to a fight that continues today to restore tribal respect and honor is a constant reminder that this is an ongoing process and conversation.”

Science has never been a neutral place as it is practiced by humans with our bias, politics, worldview, and agendas. This is an important reason and need to constantly reexamine the policy and ethics behind our practices and methods. I often find myself very simply saying, “Give it back! What’s the problem?” Yet, I’m not completely unaware of the complications that may need to be navigated (complications of the colonial making, but issues nonetheless). I won’t dismiss the learning curve that HAS to happen. I also won’t editorialize too much. I don’t know. I just try to live by, “Know better, do better.”

Look out for Head Hunters: Anthropology and the Skull Obsessed! Part 3, which is a book review of a text that tackles this very subject!

Learn more:

Indigenous Remains Do Not Belong to Science

How Native Americans are taking back their ancestors’ remains

Native American Remains And Artifacts Returned To Colorado After 130 Years