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Archaeology And Universal Interests

I suppose since this blog is named after an archaeology concept, and listed in's list of archaeology blogs, I should occasionally talk about archaeology. A good opportunity to do so comes from this story, which relates how some scientists are having a fit because the US Senate is considering clarifying and modestly strengthening the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. I've written many times before (pdf) about the issues involved here, so I won't rehash why I find the typical scientists' arguments to be overblown, outweighed, and/or poor strategy. I do, however, want to highlight one aspect of the scientists' argument quoted in the story:

If adopted, the proposed changes could "result in a world heritage disaster of unprecedented proportions" and "rob our descendants of the unique insights concerning the shared heritage of all people that physical anthropological studies of culturally unidentifiable human remains can provide," the American Association of Physical Anthropologists said in a statement.

This is possibly the most frustrating and problematic aspects of the anti-NAGPRA (or pro-weak-version-of-NAGPRA) position. I can understand if you really value scientific knowledge about the past and want to fight for that value to be recognized and protected by others (I value it too, even though in the NAGPRA case I think there are other values that can outweigh it). But too often scientists -- as members of the dominant culture are wont to do -- presume to speak for the interests of the whole human species. They privilege their interests by universalizing them, presuming themselves to be a sort of (quasi-Marxist) universal class. Given the phrasing of this statement, I'm not surprised that many Native Americans are deeply suspicious that archaeology and physical anthropology (including things like National Geographic's genome mapping project, which I've been meaning to write about) function in part to produce justifications of those assumptions, such as the assimilation of all people into one culture's paradigm, thus upholding the dominant culture's position.

To be clear, I am not "anti-science" -- when its methodological presuppositions can be met, the scientific method is a powerful way of producing valid knowledge. But science is a tool that must serve the needs of the society that uses it. I think it is possible to do science in a way that respects the diverse interests and self-determination of all cultures. But paternalistically telling those cultures that what you're doing is for the greater good is not a path to that kind of science.


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