Thursday, August 11, 2011

repatriation of faunal remains

I have a friend who works in the Hohokam area of southern Arizona. She is the faunal analyst with a long-term project whose PI recently made a deal with the local tribal representatives to repatriate all dog burials. My friend was concerned about this, as it prevents her from doing DNA studies, and future zooarchaeologists will not be able to re-study the remains as methods advance.

As I've mentioned before, I have very strong views about NAGPRA and repatriation. But I'm concerned about the repatriation of non-funereal faunal remains, and not because the world may lose critical information about dead dogs.

The argument for repatriating dog remains stems from their ritual disposal, and the meaning the animals held for those who buried them. But fauna is an underappreciated source of information about the ritual, emotional, and social lives of past people. For example, dogs are not the only animal burials found in the Hohokam area. Raptors, particularly red-tailed hawks, and wild carnivores are also found at many sites. There are also deposits of what appear to be ritual paraphernalia made of animal parts, such as deer antlers that were part of headdresses.

Taking a step back from clearly ritualized deposits, animals that were eaten also played a critical role in ancient rituals and belief systems. In Hohokam sites, it is quite common to find that the vast majority of ungulate remains come from only one or two features, frequently on platform mounds or in plazas. Their unusual distribution suggests they were part of communal feasts and rites, rather than obtained and consumed by individual households.

Taking another step back, we need to recognize that food is intimately tied into all belief systems. The meaning of a particular type of food can depend on who is eating it, when, and where. We can think of many examples within our own cultural context. How much meaning is tied up in the simple line, "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou"? And yet, that same wine and bread, when consumed in the context of the Catholic mass, has a vastly different, if just as profound, meaning.

What constitutes the sacred in "our daily bread"? Most of us would recognize that eucharistic bread has a legitimate claim for respect, even if we don't believe it to be the body of Christ. Out of respect for other people's beliefs, we would refrain from treating eucharistic bread as if it were trash. (OK, with the notable exception of PZ Myers.) But the Wonderbread on a sandwich is not worthy of special treatment. Or is it? Surely, if one is part of a belief system that sees some bread as sacred, then even Wonderbread has that potential, or at least is linked in one's mind with that which is sacred. Bread takes on a special meaning, one that equates bread with all of the food we eat, as a stand-in for all the bounty gained through the blessings of God.

My point is not that Wonderbread should be repatriated (or dogs, or ungulates), but that all food, and animals in general, are intimately wound into belief systems. To determine which animal remains should be repatriated on the basis of their close emotional or social ties to ancient peoples would require drawing an arbitrary line. I feel the tribal representatives should be the ones to draw that line. But using the arguments that were made to justify the repatriation of dogs, one could extend repatriation to a large number of faunal remains, and to many other artifacts, as well.


  1. So interesting. I've never even considered that anyone would want to repatriate any of the faunal remains that I have uncovered. Most of my work is in Israel or Jordan, and repatriation of human remains is a hotly debated topic (as there is seldom agreement as to what ethnic group will claim a burial), but thank goodness the animal bones are hardly given a second glance by the public. We regularly conduct strontium isotope analysis on teeth of domestic animals, which would be impossible with repatriation. Repatriation of certain parts of our assemblages wouldn't be beyond reason, especially since there are so many sacrificial/ taboo/kosher rules associated with primary domesticates in the Near East. Thankfully the question hasn't been raised... I hope that I am never faced with it.

  2. Yes, I worked in Jordan for some time, and this was never a question. Nobody cared what happened to things "made by Allah" (as opposed to things made by people).

    On the one hand, I have some sympathy for those who argue for repatriation, since some of these faunal remains did have a very important role in ancient societies. On the other hand, what a nightmare it would be to start trying to figure out what would and what would not be eligible for repatriation.