Monday, August 1, 2011

Biocultural Bodies and the Anatomy of Controversy

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 [1], [2], [3], but even with his recent dismissal as antiquities minister of Egypt [4], 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 [5], [6]: 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 [7], 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 [8], 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 [9], 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 [10], is sparsely settled by the Uyghur people [11]. 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 [12] – 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” [13] 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 [14].

Loulan Beauty.
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 [15], [16]. 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 [17].

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 [18], but museum officials reported that China requested all of the artifacts be removed [19], [20]. 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 [20]. 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 [21], [22], [23].

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.


Kristina Killgrove is a biological anthropologist affiliated with Vanderbilt University and UNC Chapel Hill. Her research focuses primarily on analysis of human skeletal remains from ancient Rome, and she blogs regularly at Powered by Osteons.

3 comments:

sm said...

Great piece Kristina. I really enjoyed the way your two examples highlight the links between biological anthro and the cultural politics of race and identity, and thus to both cultural/political anthropology and "real world" issues. I can only hope that there are productive collaborations going on between biological and cultural anthropologists (and anthropologies!) in these and other cases.

Kristina Killgrove said...

Thanks for your kind words, sm! Sometimes we as biological anthropologists are a little afraid of the world of cultural anthropology. After all, studying dead Romans takes very different techniques than studying living, breathing, modern people. And sometimes we fall behind our cultural brethren in applying theory and humanistic ideas to our often science-heavy corner of the discipline. But there are productive collaborations going on around the world - most notably in the growing field of medical anthropology, which combines biology and culture to understand a group of people and the health challenges they face. Taking a biocultural approach in all anthropologies is a good place to start, but sometimes it's hard not to privilege one data set over another!

Unknown said...

The ancient Uighurs are different from modern Uyghurs. Michael Dillon in his book Xinjiang-China's Muslim far northwest agreed that there is no clear and direct link between the two. Hence, he use different spelling to distinguish them. According to anthropology report in the Journal of Xinjiang Normal University July 1999, Vol. 20 No. 3. A research report on a dozen of skulls of modern Uyghur people. Among 14 classical anthrological characteristics, 3 of them up to 21.4 % fall into White European and Mongols. 8 characteristics of up to 57% fall into Mongols. There are also other ethnic groups like the white Russian. There are up to 47 different ethnic groups in Xinjiang. No all of them are Uyghurs. Uyghurs accounts for aroung 47%. As for the language. The Uyghurs language has both the Altaic and Turkic characteristics. However, right from the Russian Far East down Siberia, Inner Mongolia, Central Asia to Turkey, language have Turkic and Altaic characteristics. Uyghurs are closer to Mongols rather then the Turkish people. I have a Turkish friend she just met a Uyghur couple. She cannot understand these Uyghurs' language. Uyghurs of Xinjiang said they like to do business in Central Asia. There are markets doing border trading between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan. Because they understand each others language more easily. After the ancient Uighur empire (tribe) was destroyed during the Tang Dynasty, one group of them went to China and requested for protection. These Eastern Uighurs assimilated with the Han Chinese. These Uighurs are Buddhist not Muslims. One of their prince was sent to study Buddhism in India and became a great scholar. The other group of these ancient Uighurs went to Central Asia, where they assimilated to Central Asian people. During the Tang Dynasty, west of Xinjiang should be Persian land, Iran people now. It was also the time the Arab people had built them a great empire across the Middle East and Europe. Xinjiang was a land of all different came int transition there to do trading, mainly the Arab merchants and normade people shifting around. The modern Uyghur ethnic group is an artifically created ethnic group which claim the name of the ancient Uighurs when the new china promised to give favourable treatment to ethnic minorities. There are too many groups in Xinjiang. So, the government allowed them to group together and call themselves Uyghurs. They are mainly people speaking from Central Asia. The modern Uyghur is not a monolithic group. Many of them just call themselves Hui rather than Uyghur because Uyghur tell them nothing. However, they share the same faith Islam. I have no knowledge on anthropoligy but I happen to have found these during my research.