I don’t think that you will ever walk into the office of an anthropologist or an anthropology museum or anywhere where anthropology is being practiced and not find a skull. I don’t think it matters if it’s biological anthropology or linguistics, I think you’ll find a skull- model, diagram, books, possibly real, shrunken, jeweled, hominid, decorative, a combination-of-these-things skull. I, personally, have quite a few for teaching, books, received as gifts, posters, giveaways, etc. Even my logo includes a non-descript human skull as an identification marker of the type of anthropology that is my research and personal focus. This seems to make sense to me- kind of like you would expect a photographer to have a lot of cameras and camera-related things. However, as I was reading through an old article that I read for my thesis research, which incidentally was about the human skull and its relationship to anthropology, and I started thinking about the historical tales I’ve read that revealed and summarized the macabre and often manipulative relationships that anthros have had with skulls.
Around the world, people have been pondering the relationship that science and scholarship have had with human bodies. While more people are now paying greater attention to these incidents and how they structure power relations and oppression, etc., these concerns and outcries have always been there and mostly dismissed as niche or special interests. These conversations have been wrapped in policy like NAGPRA or monument such as the African American Burial Grounds in New York. It seems to me that these issues are often structured or framed as rarity or one of a kind. However, when we zoom out on the subject matter, it’s a lot more widespread and common. Medical history reveals actions that by modern-day standards are considered unethical, at best. Skulls have occupied a great deal of the human experience and imagination. Skull and head symbolism and meaning can be found in every corner of the world. They’ve adorned ancient gods, reflected mortality, reflected strength, imbued with magic, were a canvas for art, held spirits of our ancestors, were reflections of love, in times of war they were reflections of triumph, and the list continues.
When the search for reason and the rational became obsession and rampant curiosity, the skull began its journey as object- detached and disembodied from the being or person it once belonged to. Not everyone agreed to that though. As we read article after article after article about museums and institutions returning the skulls, remains, and artifacts from a number of groups of people around the world, it is very clear who was not in agreement. It is clear whose humanity and agency were separated from their physical bodies in order to justify the removal of their remains without consent. I could probably go on and on about the complexities and, quite honestly, f**kery, that walks in parallel to these historical events, but I don’t want to stray too far from the point of this series about anthros and skulls.
For me, the hardest part about putting together this series was not to over- editorialize. Recognizing that a blog really is a series of posts that often reflect a particular point of the writer, but I still believe in a balance. The collection of human remains may have been and still is partially related to curiosity, scientific inquiry, and advancement. It was also about power, violence, and a crucial part of the imperial and colonial project. The how processes, methods, and techniques in science and medicine are created is an ethical imperative, that should evolve and change as we know and understand more. I don’t necessarily want to leave those thoughts out or unexplored to preserve the false idea that scientists are somehow bias or objective all the time. Part of this small series about anthros and skulls reveals how false that idea is. Anyway, we’ll see how I did! *shrugs*
What are we doing here?
This series is the first new series in the relaunch of the blog! It’s a little different than past series I’ve done because it is a collaborative effort that features two of my anthropology friends who have contributed appropriate book reviews to accompany two of my narrative posts on two anthros and their skull work.
I’ve never included or have done book reviews before on the blog. There are many decent books on this subject, so I thought rather than trying to synthesize every complex action in history regarding anthros and skulls, including book reviews to help anchor this series would be a pretty cool addition. I guess we’ll see how it goes!
In any case, welcome to the four-part series, Head Hunters: Anthropology and the Skull Obsessed!