Who Are You?Dirty Science by Dr Brenna Hassett
As a professional digger-up of dead people, I’ve got a lot of explaining to do. A lot of people wonder, quite rightly, whether what I do – bioarchaeology – is entirely savoury. And whether I am aware of the ‘Mummy’ film series, and have I considered travel insurance. As a brief ‘Hello, World’ to the brave new universe of The Cosmic Shambles Network, I reckon I ought to ‘fess up to one of the larger truths about archaeology, and science in general. Bioarchaeologists attempt to explain how we find our species in the state it’s in by carefully tracing the evolutionary shifts of our physical form, our social organisation, and even the lovely things that kill us off. We rather fancy ourselves arbiters of the entire ‘what are humans like’ genre of science. My discipline, however, just like many¹ other sciences, is – wait for it – MADE OF PEOPLE.
Perhaps one of the most counter-intuitive things a scientist of the past can do is to explicitly put themselves back into the equation. Science, after all, is supposed to be pure – a series of testable hypotheses, results in column A against results in column B. Your school biology teacher was worried about teaching you the principles of genetic inheritance. They were never going to give you extra credit for knowing where Mendel stood on the Moravian monastery tax of 1874². Science is usually presented to us as a series of immutable facts, untroubled by nuance or the murky circumstances of their genesis. But we lose a lot when we lose the context of our scientific facts – we lose sight of the larger narrative they emerge from, and without that, we are left with a series of factoids shouted into the void³: Lobster society is made up of straight-backed winners and slouching losers! (False.) Lobsters sociology is widely misunderstood! (True.) The social lives of arthropods are directly relatable to changes in social organisations specific to particular economic, language, cultural and geographic groups in the last century! (Debatable.)
All this screaming of science into an abyss applies to archaeology too. A prime example comes from the rise of do-it-yourself DNA ‘testing’ kits, which threaten to use the techniques pioneered by aDNA (ancient DNA) studies to reveal your ancestry. Which is fun (and cuts way down on the paper cuts associated with traditional ancestry research) until you realise –drum roll – most of DNA we have to compare your spit-swab to comes from Europeans and Americans of European descent. Because that’s where DNA techniques were pioneered, that’s where most of the samples come from, and just by virtue of overwhelming statistics your results are going to reflect that bias. Early DNA questions were asked and answered around the interests of a specific group – and that’s why a company like 23 and Me has been offering free kits to researchers working with non-European populations. It’s not just DNA — forensic science uses measurements of skeletal remains to achieve a similar result, identifying bodies a la Bones or CSI; but it’s worth remembering that we stacked the deck there too, collecting all manner of skulls from all manner of places in unequal numbers (and extremely unequal conditions). If you don’t want to find yourself explaining to a jury why the computer thinks your body found in Iowa originates from Easter Island centuries ago, you have to stop and think about where and how we get the data we use.
This loss of context is particularly important to archaeological science, which is itself the study of the human past. If we take the past out of it – the pith helmets and sticky-fingered colonial attitudes, the outright racist suggestion that ‘the Lost Tribe of Israel’ (or aliens – looking at you, History Channel) built everything non-European people built, the exclusion of the voices that weren’t white, male, and privileged – we lose sight of why we have the scientific data that we have. Why do we know so much about biblical archaeology and so little about Africa? Why did Marxist theories that explained ancient society based on economic systems become the dominant theme in the first generation to see an expansion of university education beyond the upper classes? Why did the ‘Me Decade’ produce so many archaeologists who insisted the past can only be understood in terms of individual agency? And — this is a big one for me – where the hell are all the women?
When it comes to the furore about the impartiality of science, particularly assertions that humans in the past must have behaved this way or that, we don’t need to consider the lobster. We need to consider the data. When people look back to the past to explain the present – which is something we have to do, unless you’re keen on radioactive cockroach canapes as a lifestyle choice – they are people. With a past. That guy who was obsessed with peas had a host of personal issues and some strong feelings about tax. A lot of guys in the evolutionary psychology game seem to have some pretty strong opinions about where they stand in that evolutionary league table. The DNA test telling you you’re just a little bit Scottish? It never met your cousins. And the archaeologist writing this? Well. Everyone’s got an agenda. But if we want science to have a shot at something other than void-screaming, we’ve got to be explicit about it.
¹ You know who you are.
² Against, as it happens.
³ The Internet
Dr Brenna Hassett is an archaeologist specialising in the analysis of human remains as a researcher at University College London and a Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum London. She has dug on sites across the globe, from Greece to Egypt to Thailand and beyond. Several of these sites but none of her boots survived the experience. She is one quarter of The Trowelblazers group and her first book, Built on Bones, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. She is on Twitter at @brennawalks