Bioarchaeology and Repatriation: Re-Establishing Identity and Provenance of Indigenous Ancestral Remains

Author: Jacinta Smith

Smith, Jacinta, 2023 Bioarchaeology and Repatriation: Re-Establishing Identity and Provenance of Indigenous Ancestral Remains, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The aim of the thesis is to investigate the question: How can bioarchaeological methods contribute to the repatriation of unprovenanced or poorly provenanced indigenous ancestral remains? The question is addressed by employing a qualitative research approach including, the use of secondary academic sources, primary published resources and personal communications with different museum repatriation practitioners. This has provided a more detailed examination and insight into the values, meanings and perspectives regarding repatriation of indigenous ancestral remains. Throughout the research process concepts of post-processual archaeology, particularly indigenous archaeology became a focus, highlighting the importance of provenancing ancestral remains from an indigenous-led approach, as well as emphasising the importance of a more indigenous-controlled repatriation process.

The research demonstrates that bioarchaeological methods of provenancing ancestral remains can be highly successful in restoring identities and the provenance of ancestral remains. It is evident from Australian and international case studies, that information about ancestral remains can be gleaned through osteological and isotopic analysis, as well as through archival research or through analysis of related soils. Museums have in the past implemented some bioarchaeological methods, however, new and advancing methods are beginning to emerge as part of bioarchaeology and could significantly contribute in provenancing ancestral remains for repatriation.

The collaboration that has resulted from repatriation has allowed indigenous communities to begin to involve bioarchaeology in research studies. More importantly, bioarchaeology has also become more prevalent in the context of provenancing research for repatriation of ancestral remains. Bioarcheologists make significant contributions to the repatriation process, their knowledge can be extremely valuable for all stakeholders and their future engagement in the repatriation sector needs to be employed more predominantly within institutions globally, to successfully re-individualise, re-identify and repatriate ancestral remains.

As the practice of repatriation in museums becomes increasingly more difficult into the future, especially in relation to unprovenanced ancestral remains, the museum sector needs to integrate not only existing bioarchaeological methods into provenancing processes but also needs to embrace new approaches and thoroughly educate indigenous communities about the various methods available for their utilisation. Provenancing methods need to be accepted by all stakeholders, which means that changes are needed to directly engage indigenous people in provenancing processes and acceptance of their inclusion by the museum sector. Indigenous-controlled and led provenancing needs to be further advanced into the future in provenancing ancestral remains, so that repatriation can continue to be culturally appropriate and successful for future generations.

Keywords: bioarchaeology, provenance, Indigenous ancestral remains, repatriation, unprovenanced, poorly provenanced, museum, identity

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2023
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Donald Pate