The Lost


I broke my left clavicle (“collar bone”) when I was 12. It is probably the worst bone to break (we can fight about this in the comments) because you don’t get a cast, you just get a sling. This is incredibly frustrating as no one signs a sling (Ed: It’s just not a thing so stop trying to make it one 12 year old Katie). I can feel a slight bump where the break was to this day when I run my fingers along my collar bone and most of my students know of this injury.

Why would my students know? Because  when talking about the cultural construction of race, sex, and gender, and the use of race as a category of convenience, I use myself as an example. I give them a scenario wherein I go missing immediately after teaching class that day and they are the last ones to see me. As such they are now tasked by law enforcement to describe my physical appearance – from my hair, skin, and eye colour to my age to permanent and non-permanent modifications such as my tattoos and the clothing I was wearing. I note how those listed characteristics may be useful in tracking me down if I’m alive, but how each are not that useful taken on their own or even in collectively. It is safe to suggest there are quite a few middle aged, short, white females, with dark hair and eyes and tattoos running around in western Canada. Further if all that turns up of me is my skeletal remains, they’d need much more specific and unique information about me to confirm my identity. So my broken left collar bone, my chipped and repaired front central incisor, and the dent in my forehead caused by a run in with a coffee table at the age of three, along with information about my age, sex, and height are all useful clues in establishing that yes indeed those skeletal remains belong to one K. Biittner.

Most students chuckle at this scenario or at least play along but that’s when I then hit them with the anthropology. I have fun in the classroom but it’s important to take our discipline, our role, and what we can do for the missing, the disappeared, and the unidentified (who I will collectively refer to as “the Lost” here) seriously. Now this post is not about methods or techniques in biological anthropology, archaeology, nor forensic anthropology, though admittedly that’s kind of where it began. Instead of talking about HOW we identify the lost, I wanted to talk about WHY.

Because we can. Because we must.

Anthropologists have a unique and particular set of skills. We know how to carefully recover and document remains and their context. We can analyse human skeletal remains to help establish a person’s identity and do so within a broader context of understanding of human skeletal variation. We importantly use cultural relativism to understand how individuals become one of the lost – warfare, suicide, marginalization, racism, sexism, etc. We also use cultural relativism to direct how we handle those remains, and how we discuss the lost with law enforcement, representatives from other government and non-governmental agencies, community members, and families. In some cases it is not appropriate to mention the lost by name, in others it is dangerous to speak of the lost at all.

For example, anthropologists are currently working to find out the identities of undocumented immigrants whose remains have been recovered in various conditions and contexts within a state park in Texas. Identifying these individuals is important to the families of the lost. However, there’s a lot of subtext in this project that the article touches on I’m sure the anthropologists are aware of and interested in examining further. Yes, there is the practice of illegally disposing of human remains but what is motivating it? Discrimination against undocumented immigrants is not exclusive to the living. Without documentation it can be extremely difficult and risky/dangerous to even try to legally deal with the remains of a deceased loved one. It is costly to bury or to cremate our dead, which adds to the pressure to find other methods of disposal. But not being able to bury your dead because of financial or legal consequences also has its emotional and cultural cost. Funerary rites are so important. They represent the final rite of passage. Not being able to send off your family member in a culturally significant and meaningful sort of way is hard emotionally and spiritually. This serves to further disenfranchise and marginalize the deceased individual’s kin. In this way the living are pushed closer to becoming one of the lost too.

So if I were to join the lost,  I hope it is a colleague, a fellow anthropologist who is charged with handling my remains with their once-broken left clavicle and repaired front tooth. I know they’ll not only tirelessly work to find out who I am and who I was, but also to explain, to challenge, and to resolve the larger cultural values and processes that resulted in anyone becoming one of the lost.




3 thoughts on “The Lost

  1. WG

    You pulled me in with the first few paragraphs, and then used the momentum to throw me into some emotions with the last few. The buildup was nice for such a short post.
    Anyway, I too broke my collarbone once, as well as one of my front central incisors. I thought that coincidence between us was cool. Another one of my skeleton’s markers would be the permanent bumps that have formed atop my shins due to something called Osgood-Schlatter disease, which I had as a kid.
    I think this technique of yours—to get students thinking about flesh-and-blood bodies, including their own, before moving to something more serious—works great to induce a sympathetic, visceral reaction.
    I like that this post takes on age and gender in a general way—by speaking on the importance of bodies. Largely, people feel that their bodies help to constitute their identities. Biological sex and age, for example, are two components of the body that have an indisputable effect on how one perceives oneself, and on how one is perceived by others. Our bodies may be misread, too, and therefore our identities, depending on who is reading them. It makes me wonder, what is a body? And who answers that question? What is it that determines what a body can and cannot be?
    This post does a good job of underlining the value of the anthropological perspective in an emotive and accessible way. It makes the reader realize that they too, if ‘lost,’ would want to have a good anthropologist on the job “to explain, to challenge, and to resolve the larger cultural values and processes” that resulted in their ‘loss’, and in the very objective manner that anthropologists seem to have.


  2. annie lotay

    This is a brilliant post dr.biittner, and quite informative about the lost and the way they are discriminated against. I agree, the lost should be identified and the reasons provided in this post are very convincing. I like the example you used as “Without documentation it can be extremely difficult and risky/dangerous to even try to legally deal with the remains of a deceased loved one”. I also think that illegally disposing human remains is discrimination because this practice indirectly implies that it does not matter how the lost is cremated. However, the culture of the lost might have significant rituals for a funeral that have emotional and spiritual sentiments. This post relates to the idea of cultural relativism that we have discussed in class. To connect the post and class discussion of cultural relativism I can say that if the lost are identified, they can be disposed of in a legal and culturally significant manner; their identification could help the anthropologists see the lost and their culturally appropriate funerary practices from their cultural perspective. This post, also relates to rites of passage discussion in class and funeral is an example of a rite of passage because it’s an important cultural practice. The anthropological perspective is adequately applied because rites of passage, especially, funeral is a significant practice because in some cultures it is something that transfers one to the afterlife. Therefore, if someone who belongs to such a culture is disposed of in a different way, their family members might be unsatisfied and emotionally hurt. I selected this post because having faced discrimination myself, it has become an important issue for me. Also, because discrimination is happening with skeletal remains instead of just alive human beings, sparked an interest in me. Most importantly, this post highlights why it is important to identify the lost and how it can be used for proper and culturally significant funerary rites. To go in another direction, does it matter what kind of funerary rites are going to be performed? Doesn’t burying a body take up land? Because I know that in my hometown in India a burial ground was cleared to make a hospital. Is that also disrespectful to the lost?


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