Why should we study the dead...?
This question has been posed to me numerous times in slightly different ways by students, interviewers, and granting agencies. Sometimes I answer that it’s important to listen closely to what the dead are telling us about their lives; their experiences in a remote time and in a foreign culture can give us insight into what a past civilization was really like. But other times I respond that it’s important to pay attention to what the dead are telling us about our own lives; the way that we use the dead to bolster or dismantle the ideology of our contemporary societies throws into stark relief the limits to our understanding of the past.
Our nature as humans is to find patterns and create categories to make sense of our world. This cognitive ability – and the language to express it – lets us process information and learn incredibly quickly. Humankind has probably always classified one another by our outward appearance – our phenotypes, which give us our hair form, eye color, nose shape, skin color, height, and so on. These categories we create are based on a biological reality, but they’re not immutable: in different times, in different places, in different cultures, varying combinations of these traits are used to categorize people into different groups.
It can be difficult to separate yourself from the age in which you live and to recognize that a category as seemingly obvious, real, and inherent as race is no more than a cultural construct, an organizing principle created by humans to serve a particular purpose. But in doing so, we can arrive at one of the fundamental contributions of today’s biological anthropology: the ability to decouple race and ancestry and to see how societies use ancient bodies to support multiple, often conflicting claims to the past.
Was Cleopatra Black?
For the past five years, Zahi Hawass has been leading the charge in the search for the tomb of Cleopatra, making news in National Geographic annually , , , but even with his recent dismissal as antiquities minister of Egypt , excavations are likely to continue. Western culture is fascinated by the powerful female pharaoh, whose affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony were great fodder for ancient gossip. This modern obsession with Cleopatra extends to her physical being, most notably to the question of her race , : Was she a black ruler of Egypt, or did her ancestry as a Ptolemy mean she was white like her Macedonian relatives?
|Bust of Cleopatra VII Philopatror|
There is no solid evidence of who Cleopatra’s mother was. She was likely related to Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and therefore biologically similar, but she also could have been any elite woman from Greece, Libya, Nubia, Asia Minor, or Egypt, as the Ptolemaic kingdom was quite a melting pot. If we go back another generation, Cleopatra’s paternal grandfather was Ptolemy IX, but her grandmother was probably an outsider. Cleopatra’s ancestry is unclear, but she was at least one-quarter Macedonian. Alexander the Great and other Macedonians are known for their fair hair, but historical records reveal that Egyptians showed a diverse range of physical traits: from red hair and light skin to curly hair and dark skin.
The question of whether Cleopatra was black, though, is anachronistic and irrelevant to history because skin color was not the primary ingredient in the racial categories of Greece and Egypt as it is in today’s America. Yet the question of Cleopatra’s race resonates with us today because she was an exotic Eastern female ruler in a time when the Western world was run by men and histories were written by the victors. We can see some parallels with African-American history, which involved denying slaves their human rights, their heritage, and their history. It may not be surprising, then, that Cleopatra, who ruled over one of the most powerful civilizations in the world, has been viewed by the African-American community as a heroine of black culture and a symbol of black history , a counterpoint to mainstream American culture, which historically tends to diminish or minimize the accomplishments of blacks.
As we continue to watch how Egypt deals with its recent revolution , we can also see what history means to the Egyptian people. Hawass is leaving amidst charges that he cares more about Egypt’s past than about the present Egyptians , that he and Mubarak were loathe to break with a history of dynastic rulers and autocratic regimes. Contemporary Egyptians’ struggle for power and representation may eventually yield a new understanding of their past.
Are the Xinjiang (Tarim) Mummies White?
In far western China, the Tarim Basin, a 350,000-square-mile desert , is sparsely settled by the Uyghur people . At the beginning of the 20th century, European explorers arrived in western China, searching for artifacts to sell on the growing antiquities market. Instead, they found numerous desiccated bodies – mummies  – that were preserved by burial in salt-rich soil. Even more remarkable, though, was that they were quite tall, with angular eye orbits and high, narrow noses – what forensic anthropologists would call a “Caucasoid”  type. Some of the mummies still had skin, and many of them had curly hair ranging in color from blond to red to dark brown, quite unlike the straight, black hair we see in most people from eastern China today. DNA analysis reveals that the Basin was a melting pot, continually inhabited from 2000-300 BC by people with ancestors from Europe, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley .
|Modern Uyghur woman.|
Enter the contemporary Uyghurs. The ancestors of these people were likely European in origin and arrived in the Tarim Basin via Mongolia around 900 AD, long after the mummies had settled the area. In spite of the gap in chronology and the fact that DNA analysis doesn’t directly link them to the mummies, the Uyghur people claim the mummies as their ancestors. More importantly, the Uyghur nationalist movement has used the “Caucasoid” appearance of the mummies to claim that the people in the area came from the West rather than the East, in support of their historical claims to the land in the Tarim Basin , . The Xinjiang region of China is massive – and also rich in oil and natural gas. Uyghurs want to assert control over their heritage and this region in order to gain economic benefit from what they feel is their rightful land .
The controversy over the mummies became known more widely in the U.S. this past spring. A traveling exhibit of Silk Road artifacts, including two of the mummies, had come to California and to Texas. It was slated for the University of Pennsylvania Museum , but museum officials reported that China requested all of the artifacts be removed , . The Chinese Embassy in D.C. said that the exhibit simply hadn’t been approved for display at U Penn, but this statement contradicted an earlier report that approval had been granted a year prior. Within a week’s time, however, the entire exhibit was approved to be shown at U Penn, after numerous high-level talks between the U.S. and China, but the length of the exhibit was shortened and the mummies were quickly removed . Many guessed that China decided to allow the mummies be shown in order to avoid further difficulties in diplomatic relations. More saliently, the speculation is that China didn’t want much international attention accorded to the mummies, fearing that if attention were drawn to the resemblance between the mummies and modern-day Uyghurs, even without conclusive DNA evidence, China may lose control over the Xinjiang region , , .
The Xinjiang or Tarim mummies are fascinating biological specimens in and of themselves, and with modern technology we can tease out the various populational contributions to their DNA, explaining how their phenotypes came to be. But the case of the mummies is also important from an anthropological perspective, as the mummies’ appearance and their DNA are being used by two different sides of a land rights claim.
… To learn about the living.
As humans, we classify one another on a daily basis in order to make sense of social relationships, and we also take pains to present ourselves as members of a group. We dress in a certain way, modify our bodies to different extents, participate in various activities, bury our deceased in a specific manner. These methods of cultural presentation can be read from our bodies and are just as important as our genetic makeup. Race, ancestry, ethnicity, and identity are therefore key concepts not just in cultural anthropology but also in biological anthropology. The dead can whisper the secrets of their lives from beyond the grave, but they can also hold up a mirror to modern society. Many biological anthropologists are captivated by this reflection, and contemporary research in the field has been strengthened by this biocultural perspective.