May 17, 2021

Should human remains be unearthed for scientific study? | Science

Should human remains be unearthed for scientific study? | Science

Since their arrival in Australia, in the eighteenth century, the British began to collect remains of aborigines buried in the continent to study and store them as museum pieces. Among the most well-known remains are those of the Man of Mungo, an individual of about fifty years who was buried in the Lakes region of Willandra, in the southeast of the country, more than 40,000 years ago, when there were still Neanderthals in Europe. Discovered by Jim Bowler in 1974, the fossils were taken to Canberra where they were conserved for scientific analysis at the Australian National University.

A year ago, those human remains, the oldest in Australia, were returned to their place of origin along with other 104 people to be buried again according to the beliefs of their descendants. For decades, the aboriginal communities of Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi had reclaimed them, convinced that far from their homeland the spirits of those dead could not rest. "His spirit will be released and he will be released when we return him to the land where he came from," Aunt Patsy, a representative of the Mutthi Mutthi, told reporters shortly before the ceremony.

Bowler himself had denounced the practices of many archaeologists who plundered the remains of hundreds of indigenous Australians without obtaining a scientific benefit. The most famous of these was Murray Black, a mining engineer who collected thousands of skulls and complete skeletons to be sent to research institutions. "He told me a story about how he had once been working around the Murrumbidgee River during the summer and had two trucks full of skeletons. When he returned, the silver minnows [un tipo de insectos] they had eaten the labels and [los esqueletos] they were useless. So they sent them all to the anatomy institute where they stayed until about 25 years ago, " Bowler explained in an interview with The Guardian.

But the researcher has also defended the need for scientists to study these remains, partly to understand the history of human spirituality and the way in which aborigines have related to their environment, more through empathy and intuition than of the rational analysis of nature to adapt it to human purposes. In a recent work that is published in the magazine Science Advances, a team of scientists in collaboration with aboriginal activists such as Aunt Patsy shows the possibility of collaboration between these two parallel universes.

According to the beliefs of the aborigines, the spirits of their ancestors do not rest until their remains lie in the lands where they lived and that is why they have claimed for decades that those bones are returned to where they belong. However, the desidiosa collection of individuals like Black has made that the only thing that is known about many of these remains is that they belong to aborigines. The geographical origin, the tribe or the spoken language were unknown, preventing a precise repatriation. Bringing the remains of an Aborigine to any place in Australia other than your region would be as useless for resting your spirit as staying in a London museum.

In the work led by Joanne Wright, an expert in human evolution at Griffith University in Australia, scientists wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to recover DNA from remains buried in these regions, despite its arid climate, which is not ideal for the conservation of genetic material, and compare it with current aborigines to identify its origin. The researchers obtained and sequenced ten nuclear genomes (where more than 20,000 genes contain the information necessary to make a human being) and 27 mitochondrial genomes (with only 37 genes, but useful to identify relatives) of Australians living before the arrival of European and known origin. Then, they compared these samples with the genomes of 100 modern aborigines. Their analysis concluded that the genomes of most ancestral aborigines were closer to those of the people who lived today in the same regions they had lived. This makes nuclear DNA and its comparison technique useful for repatriating aboriginal remains to their rightful place. However, the same is not true with mitochondrial DNA, with which almost one in ten remains would end up in a different place from their corresponding one according to indigenous beliefs.

For almost the entire history of mankind, this sensitivity of a technologically superior culture to the feelings of its less advanced counterparts would have been an eccentricity. In Spain, there was almost a century a stuffed bushman like an animal in a museum in Bañolas, in Gerona, until it was repatriated and buried in Botswana in the year 2000 and in dozens of museums around the world you can see the remains of individuals who would not consider it ideal for their souls to remain exposed to the looks of the curious and the manipulation of the scholars.

Although racism has aggravated the lack of decorum with which human remains have been treated throughout history, not even being white saved the Irish giant Charles Byrne from being exposed in the museum of John Hunter, one of the fathers of the modern medicine There he ended in 1787 despite his explicit desire to be buried in the sea knowing the interest of many scientists to entangle with his corpse of more than 2.30 meters, and there you can still see his skeleton.

Since the nineties, the debate on how to treat human remains with scientific interest has intensified and rules have been established to respect the demands of some groups on remains that they consider of their ancestors while preserving the possibility of studying them. Without it, we would not know that the African of Banyoles is part of the same lineage as the Europeans who believed they had the right to dissect it or that the current aborigines descend directly from the Man of Mungo, they are the first human inhabitants that Australia had and have the most culture. Ancient Earth


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