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.