Recognising that Recognition is Not Enough: Confronting the Worst of Archaeology

A few months ago, I read Angela Saini’s newest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. It is a really thorough examination of the ways in which race science continues to pervade our politics and research today, and I would recommend it to those (specifically, white scientists) who may not be familiar with its history and current discourse.

The cover of the book "Superior: The Return of Race Science" by Angela Saini

One of the things that I appreciated the most is that Saini really emphasises the hand that archaeology plays in the development of race science – sometimes inadvertently, and unfortunately, often intentionally. Take, for instance, Flinders Petrie, considered by many to be an innovator of archaeological methodology, actively worked on classifying and differentiating between races and helped develop early ideas of eugenics (Challis 2013). But it is the discipline’s goal of finding our collective origins that inadvertently lead archaeologists and anthropologists alike towards race science.

For example, Saini brings up the Solutrean Hypothesis – a theory that claims the first people to settle the Americas were the Solutrean people from the European continent approximately 20,000 years ago (Halmhofer 2018). By associating the origins of the Americas with Europe, it is easy for white supremacists to claim that the origins are “white” (Colavito 2014). Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, the archaeologists who reintroduced this theory in 1999, have attempted to (poorly) distance themselves from the racist implications of the Solutrean Hypothesis, which has also been overwhelmingly rejected by archaeologists, but the damage is done – white supremacists claim another citation for their disgusting beliefs, and we, as archaeologists, have another long battle to fight in.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’m far from apolitical. Contrary to what some folks may believe, science is political and, as scientists, we cannot stand on the sidelines and allow our research to be appropriated for violent means – not by politicians, not by non-specialists, and certainly not by peers and colleagues who wilfully utilise a notion of an apolitical science (that does not exist) in order to back-up their harmful agendas.

And there’s some improvement in fighting against racist science – academics, writers, and creators like Angela Saini are producing literature and media that are upfront about science as a political tool built upon racism and colonialism. Interdisciplinary work in fields such as “science history” and “ethics in science” are bringing the conversations to the forefront as well. Even museums and other institutions are recognising their complicity, with the Grant Museum of Zoology producing a new exhibition called “Displays of Power” to showcase how imperialism shaped natural history collections.

But…is that enough?

As Larissa Nez pointed out on Twitter recently, institutions like the British Museum will allow for “unofficial” tours that showcase the stolen objects in their possession, but still not do anything to change their ways. Science writers are giving space to address colonialist histories and problematic utilisations of research, but again…is that enough? Is recognition of the problem enough? When we consider accountability in the production of knowledge, is just laying out the facts – that much of what we know, perhaps nearly all of what we know, was derived from violent acts and violent beliefs – is that enough?

As Tuck and Yang point out in their monumental paper, “decolonization is not a metaphor”. And I think that speaks to everything discussed in this blog post as well – yes, recognition is a good first step. But we cannot stay at that first step forever, we cannot claim that recognition is “good enough” forever – we must move past words, past simple platitudes, and actually get tangible, physical work done. And it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap – it will be labour intensive, it will cost money, and it will require many of these institutions and privileged scholars and scientists to humble themselves a great deal.

But it’s what needs to be done. And that may be enough.

References

Challis, D. (2013) The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Colavito, J. (2014) White Nationalists and the Solutrean Hypothesis. Jason Colavito. Retrieved from http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/white-nationalists-and-the-solutrean-hypothesis

Halmhofer, S. (2018) Sprinkling Some Grains of Salt on Ice Bridge. Bones, Stones, and Books. Retrieved from https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2018/01/15/sprinkling-some-grains-of-salt-on-ice-bridge/

Saini, A. (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W. (2012) Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigenity, Education, and Society 1(1).