Anthropologists Call for an End to Classifying Human Remains by Gender and Ancestry

There is an interesting controversy brewing in anthropology departments where professors have called for researchers to stop identifying ancient human remains by biological gender because they cannot gauge how a person identified at that the time. Other scholars are calling for researchers to stop identifying race as a practice because it fuels white supremacy.  One of the academics objecting to this effort to stop gender identifications, San Jose State archaeology Professor Elizabeth Weiss, is currently  suing her school. Weiss maintains that she was barred from access to the human remains collection due to her opposition to the repatriation of human remains. The school objected that she posted a picture holding a skull from the collection on social media, expressing how she was “so happy to be back with some old friends.”

The conservative site College Fix quotes various academics in challenging the identification of gender and notes the campaign of the Trans Doe Task Force to “explore ways in which current standards in forensic human identification do a disservice to people who do not clearly fit the gender binary.”

University of Kansas Associate Professor Jennifer Raff argued in a paper, “Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas,”  that there are “no neat divisions between physically or genetically ‘male’ or ‘female’ individuals.”  Her best selling book has been featured on various news outlets like MSNBC.

Weiss has criticized the book as “just plain wrong” critical points of history and objects that Raff seems “eager to pay homage to every current progressive orthodoxy.”

However, Raff is not alone. Graduate students like Emma Palladino have objected  that “the archaeologists who find your bones one day will assign you the same gender as you had at birth, so regardless of whether you transition, you can’t escape your assigned sex.”

Professors Elizabeth DiGangi of Binghamton University and Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida have also challenged the use of racial classifications in a study, objecting that “[a]ncestry estimation contributes to white supremacy.”  The authors write that “we use critical race theory to interrogate the approaches utilized to estimate ancestry to include a critique of the continued use of morphoscopic traits, and we assert that the practice of ancestry estimation contributes to white supremacy.”

The professors refer to the practice as “dangerous” and wrote in a letter to the editor that such practices must be changed in light of recent racial justice concerns.

“Between the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and the homicides of numerous Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials, we have all been reminded about the fragility of life, and the failures of our society to live up to the ideals enshrined in the foundational documents which established the United States of America over two centuries ago. Tackling these failures seems overwhelming at times; however, changes can be enacted with candid and reflexive discussions about the status quo. In writing this letter, we direct our comments to the forensic anthropology community in the United States in hopes of sparking a discussion about the long-standing practice of ancestry estimation and changes that are frankly long overdue.”

The end result of such proposals would be to curtail or bar the classification of human remains by gender or ancestral heritage by anthropologists.

This has long been a matter of heated exchanges in this field.

Indeed, a furious debate erupted after the publication of the book by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.  The book contends that human races are a biological reality and genetic differences may help explain why some people live in tribal societies and some in advanced civilizations.

In one survey, the authors found:

“Based on our studies, anthropologists are more aptly describable as ‘squatters’ (i.e., those who maintain race is not biologically meaningful), ‘shifters’ (i.e., those who maintain race is not biologically meaningful but is a social reality), and ‘straddlers’ (i.e., those who recognize the significance and relevance of both biologically informed and sociocultural conceptualizations of race).”

It appears that this debate is no closer to reaching a consensus though “squatters” and “shifters” appear to dominate academic journals and faculties.

For some, this debate fulfills the old joke in teaching: “What do you call an academic who apologizes all the time? An anthropologist.”  Ok bad pun but the effort to bar the collection or classification of the data is hard to understand.

There is no question that these studies raise important questions of whether gender or racial bias can distort our understanding of human evolution and movement. Yet, it seems curious to some of us (admittedly, in my case, from another discipline) that you would not want this data point among the array of data used to analyze such discoveries. For example, it would seem that gender does reflect physical distinctions that impact elements of society, migration, and other relevant issues. In the end, you can collect this data and reach your own conclusions. If there were non-binary Neanderthals, I would frankly love to read about them.

I am not sure if that makes me a “squatter” but more likely an interloper. However, given the reliance on legal and political events by some of these writers, it is worth having a broader debate over whether such concerns should be used to limit scientific inquiry or classification on these points. It would seem to some of us that the focus should be not on the collection but the importance given such data.


122 thoughts on “Anthropologists Call for an End to Classifying Human Remains by Gender and Ancestry”

  1. “. . . we direct our comments to the forensic anthropology community . . .”

    So you’re a Woke forensic anthropologist working with a law enforcement agency:

    LE: “Do the bones indicate that the murder victim was male or female?”

    FA: “I’m not allowed to tell you.”

    “Black or white?”

    “Not telling.”

    “What pronoun should we use to describe the murder victim?”

    “You’ll have to ask the corpse.”

    “So you know nothing and are no help.”

    “I know a lot of things. But I’m supposed to pretend that I don’t.”

  2. When I read articles like this I think these people are pulling the greatest inside joke on the world OR maybe they have very serious mental issues? Either way they getting over on all of us.

  3. Turley bats leadoff this week with the effort to blur the separation between church and state through the lens of a distorted view of free speech. It’s Fox. It’s awesome. It’s using the Constitution to squash the Constitution. But hey, party on.

  4. “ancestral heritage” =/= “race”

    People can be biologically identified as having heritage from a group that’s much smaller than a racial group (e.g., identified as having Ashkenazi ancestry, identified as having Japanese ancestry), but it is then a social construct that identifies these smaller groups as associated with one race versus another.

  5. When Obama is long gone and his bones get dug up the public will want to know if his mom was all white and daddy something mixed race and whatnot.

  6. The gender identity ‘theory’ behaves like a virus and is seriously infecting the sciences. To project the notion that you could identify as a different gender than your biological gender onto a group of people living let’s say 1,500 years ago in a hunter-gatherer society is an anachronism. Gender and age composition of a group is important scientific data and ignoring that is politics, not science.

    The reasoning is stunning. The argument (from the citations used by JT) is that we should not collect data on gender and race of ancient ancestors to help overcome contemporary societal ills. I don’t see the logical connection between ‘Covid-19 and homicides of numerous Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials’ and collecting gender and race data of the remains or earlier humans. Making that connection is rhetoric, not science.

  7. The academic world is collapsing on itself with stupid arguments like this. You don’t identify as a gender; you’re assigned it by your genes with a little help from mom and dad. People in the past had no problem with this reality. Moderns do. It’s as though a gang of apes discovered our lost world and assumed we died from lack of banana production. Really it was death by academics but what do apes know? Our modern apes are bound by their woke ignorance. Ignorance kills as any mouse caught in trap knows. Here’s hoping for a lot more free cheese.

  8. There will come a day when the world will ask what the hell was wrong with these morons doing this. As for me, today is the day.

    1. Just when I think they cannot come up with more idiotic, insane ideas, they present yet another one.

      And people wonder why voters are abandoning the Dem party in droves.
      I do not want Trump to run in 2024 as I think he would be bad for the country on a whole.
      But if he does, I have to vote for him as former AG Bill Barr said.

  9. it is time to TAX all entities (non-profits) that give benefit of more than $100k to any individuals…ie Colleges.
    Also Remove all federal assistance to colleges. Yes ALL!

  10. One Addendum. Approaching 74 years of age and yet I can remember multiple grammar school teachers, multiple excellent high school teachers, innumerable medical school faculty (some of whom I met only once at an honors banquet), Multiple faculty and professors from my 5 years of post doctoral residency and fellowship, and 1 faculty member from my premed university (a brilliant professor in Organic Chemistry). That is also approximately the effect of my college education on my life (other than college being even more expensive than medical school). I used to be a strong proponent of a good liberal arts education prior to medical school, at east 2-3 years. I no longer hold that opinion. I got a better and more useful education from life, my fellow students, and the Carnegie Library in the city where I grew up than my university. Of course those other avenues fail to give you a nice shiny certificate written in Latin or archaic English.

  11. how do we know the people identified as Human…and not Just Dumb Leftists?

    1. “Science” attacking itself? If there is no value in learning that remains of people of say African descent in the North American arctic regions 1000 years before the African slave trade, we should just close all anthropology departments and reassign all professors to the custodial staff.

    2. In 5000 years, will humans be able to excavate and distinguish between those who buried their own heads in the sand and those who’s skulls were placed by others?

  12. The Left…Democrats, Globalist etc….are teaching Mass Stupidity!
    If you Vote Democrat…you are STUPID!

  13. It’s macabre that people go around digging up dead people in the name of “science”. You need to have a good reason and a court order to dig up a corpse in a cemetery. Leave the dead alone.

    Outlaw archeology. Make these highly educated ghouls get real jobs.

  14. Will this put National Geographic’s “Geno 2.0” project out of business?

  15. I knew a gentleman years ago who was a full professor in statistics at a Large midwestern university. He was a singular individual with a wonderful mind and an incredible sense of humor. We would often, during our meetings, discuss the politics of medicine and academic medicine and then the politics of non medical academia. This was because it seemed to get so vicious, at times, in the nearby university. He was on the cusp of retiring and so he was eloquent about the politics of academia and assured me that medical politics had no superiority over academic politics. When I enquired why he thought that, he mentioned that academic politics was so vicious and bloody because, at that time, there was so little money to fight over in the first place. Everything, no matter how small, was a bloodbath. Those fights now seem to be spilling over into the public arena. But he was thrilled to be leaving it so he could again live normally.
    I also knew 2 deans, one in engineering and another in veterinary medicine and their discussions were even more enhancing especially the maneuvers to remove some non performing tenured faculty, knife fights over office space, access to bathrooms, access to assistants and secretaries, office placement in halls and other things we would never think about.
    We never discussed “squatters” and “shifters” but now I think I understand academia even more. Even down to an anatomical and physiological level.
    My compliments on an excellent column and a great sense of humor.

    1. Another interloper opines: “… [T]he archaeologists who find your bones one day will assign you the same gender as you had at birth, so regardless of whether you transition, you can’t escape your assigned sex.” Exactly. No amount of surgery or hormones can alter one’s sex at birth. So, instead of accepting reality, these anthropologists want to forbid science. Such views probably won’t infect paleoanthropology, as ancient hominins were more worried about survival than pronouns, and there’s often disagreement as to the sex of bones. However, this is a ridiculous stance for forensic anthropologists. Sex characteristics and DNA found in bones aid in identification of missing persons; that’s science. If a person is being identified by bones, she or he is long past caring about gender identification.

        1. Altered sex vs non-altered sex.

          We can physically alter and dress a monkey to look like a human, but is it human?

  16. We are becoming more stupid daily as a civilization. Technology is no substitute for understanding, and glossing over major details like race and gender when studying ancient civilizations severely restricts our understanding.

  17. The relatively low pay & non-glory of professors – who have given of themselves 4 years of college, 6 years of grad schools, several years of post-doc in some fields, very crappy $10/hour type jobs in adjunct positions for most, 7 years toward tenured professorship if they’re lucky, then finally, at least, Tenured Professor for $70K or less – leads to a person who is a) heavily invested in the system in a sunk-cost way and b) very bitter and insecure at being invisible (many papers are never read, their ‘enlightened’ brilliant thoughts are read nowhere), & paid less than their plumber and electrician. They therefore tell themselves they are Brilliant & Important, far more wise than mere plumbers or doctors, the true Philosopher Kings. They teach students as a king teaches its subjects. It feels good.

  18. So we’re not following science now? So confused

    But this provides a good example of why so many people today distrust “scientists”. Hard to tell what is real and what is being pushed by those with a particular political ideology

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