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Elizabeth Weiss on Woke Archaeology and Erasing the Past

Repatriation and Erasing the Past (book cover)

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“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
—George Orwell

Dr. Weiss is suing her university, San Jose State, for calling her a racist and denying her access to the ancient Native American human fossil collection she has curated for 17 years. The accusation was made after she posted on social media a photograph of her holding a human skull that came from that collection (see below), but the deeper motive was that her book, Repatriation and Erasing the Past (co-authored with James Springer, published by University of Florida Press), criticized repatriation laws that require human remains to be returned to Native American ancestral burial grounds before they can be studied by archaeologists and other scientists. In their book Weiss and Springer argue that science must take precedence over politics and ideology, and that fossilized human remains should be kept for scientific research, especially when their connection to modern Native American populations are tentative at best and usually nonexistent.

Tweet by Elizabeth Weiss

Weiss discusses how anthropologists draw conclusions about past peoples through their study of skeletons and mummies and argues that continued curation of human remains is important, and that anthropologists should prioritize scientific research over other perspectives.

Dr. Elizabeth Weiss completed her B.A. in anthropology from University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996 and earned her M.A. in anthropology from California State University, Sacramento in 1998. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas in Environmental Dynamics (an interdisciplinary program involving anthropology and the geosciences), which she completed in 2001. From 2002 to 2004, she was a post-doctoral research associate at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and began teaching at San José State University in 2004. Her other books include Reading the Bone: Activity, Biology, and Culture (2017) and Paleopathology in Perspective: Bone Health and Disease through Time (2014). Read more about here. Follow her on Twitter: @eweissunburied

Shermer and Weiss discuss:

  • how she became interested in archaeology and when her field became politicized,
  • What happened to Kennewick Man, and who was he anyway?
  • why science is never complete and so burying fossils after a preliminary scientific analysis is insufficient,
  • why the fossil remains of most Native American sites have tenuous or no connection whatsoever to modern tribal peoples living nearby,
  • Who owns fossils, anyway?
  • the peopling of the Americas and what the consensus is on how long ago migrations began,
  • alternative archaeology and how scientists handle anomalous findings (e.g., 130,000 year old Mammoth fossils in San Diego that suggest they may have been butchered by humans),
  • why archaeologists who support cultural relativism and respect for other people’s origin stories do not apply that same attitude toward, say, Christian creationists or Mormon creation stories,
  • how she has been discriminated against as a woman researcher by some Native American groups (and why her otherwise liberal or progressive colleagues don’t defend her here),
  • her lawsuit against San Jose State University for defaming her as a “racist” and blocking her from further scientific study of the fossil collection she has curated for 17 years,
  • so-called “race science” and the curious relationship between E. O. Wilson and J. Phillippe Rushton,
  • Elizabeth’s marriage to Rushton and why she thinks he was not a racist,
  • what’s behind cancel culture and identity politics,
  • the future of archaeology on its present trajectory toward the politicization of science.

Quoted in the conversation is this “review” of her book (more like a political statement by seven authors: Sian Halcrow, Amber Aranui, Stephanie Halmhofer, Annalisa Heppner, Norma Johnson, Kristina Killgrove, and Gwen Robbins Schug) titled “Moving beyond Weiss and Springer’s Repatriation and Erasing the Past: Indigenous values, relationships, and research,” published in the International Journal of Cultural Property, in reference to Weiss and Springer:

These authors explicitly refer to a nineteenth-century “traditional” definition of anthropology as the guiding framework for their book:

It was the traditional belief of anthropologists, with which we agree, that it is possible to do these sorts of studies [of biological and cultural differences] within a comparative, objective, and rigorous framework…. Traditional anthropologists believed that they could produce an objective and universally valid body of knowledge, which is a perspective that we share.

Anthropology … flourished in the twentieth century. As part of that flourishing, there were established museums of anthropology or, more commonly, of natural history, that served as repositories for human biological and cultural remains. These museums, often associated with colleges and universities, dedicated themselves to the collection, conservation, preservation, study, and display of human biological and cultural remains…. These collections were traditionally regarded as an essential part of anthropology itself and continue to be essential to anthropological studies today.

These words are not reflective of the current perspectives of most practitioners in the fields of bioarchaeology and archaeology. They stand in direct opposition to progressive relations with a number of groups, including traditionally oppressed people (some of whom are anthropologists) who have been consistently and repeatedly harmed by individual and institutional behavior as well as by racist beliefs that are hegemonic in our discipline. We do not intend to amplify Weiss and Springer’s book; instead, we write this article to publicly reject the racist views that they espouse, as it is essential to recognize that there are still proponents of these antiquated and unethical views. Rather than being swept under the proverbial rug, these views must be addressed and, in particular, be rejected by white anthropologists.

Repatriation and Erasing the Past is a racist book and is violent toward Indigenous people.

In the end, Weiss and Springer’s argument for bioarchaeological research and non-repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains ironically fails in a catastrophic manner because of their anti-Indigenous stance and their guileless contempt for cultural relativism, the benchmark ethical perspective of the discipline of anthropology.

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on February 15, 2022.


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