2 Books Explore the Sins of Anthropologists Past and Present

By DAVID GLENN, The Chronicle of Higher Education

INHUMAN ANTHROPOLOGY: One day in 1997, Gretchen E. Schafft, an applied anthropologist in residence at George Washington University, paid a visit to the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives. Her goal that day was relatively prosaic. She wanted to read some World War II-era correspondence among American anthropologists. She wondered how much they had known at that time about the crimes committed by some of their German counterparts who had lent their services to the Nazi regime.

What Ms. Schafft found instead were 75 boxes full of material produced in Poland by the Nazi anthropologists themselves. The material had been seized by U.S. soldiers in 1945 and given to the Smithsonian by the Pentagon two years later. No Smithsonian staff member had ever cataloged the boxes, which had apparently gone unnoticed for 50 years.

The collection was difficult to stomach. It included human hair samples, fingerprints, photographs, drawings of head circumferences, and other artifacts of the Nazi regime's mania for categorizing human bodies. The Nazis were obsessed with salvaging, as they saw it, the German and other allegedly Nordic elements of the Polish population. If, in 1940, a Polish child's hair was sufficiently blond, and the shape of the head sufficiently "Aryan," he or she was likely to be forcibly sent west for "Germanization." Young people deemed purely Polish by the Nazis were shipped to work camps. Jews and Roma, of course, faced worse.

In her new book, From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich (University of Illinois Press), Ms. Schafft explores how the principles of early-20th-century physical anthropology, both scientific and pseudoscientific, were put to work by the Nazis. Several months after the invasion of Poland, Hitler's aides established the Institute for German Work in the East, which employed scholarly anthropologists to complete such tasks as "racial-biological investigation of groups whose value cannot immediately be determined" and "racial-biological investigation of Polish resistance members."

Why were these anthropologists -- many of whom had received serious training at Germany's best universities -- willing to enlist in such projects? "I think, first of all, that they really were ideologically in tune with the government," Ms. Schafft says. "And, secondly, I think they believed that measurement data was somehow sacrosanct. To some extent, I think we still believe that. I think that's a very dangerous belief. Measurement data without context has to be viewed very suspiciously."

A few years after her discovery at the Smithsonian, Ms. Schafft was contacted by a physical anthropologist who wanted to use the Nazis' data to shed light on "patterns of migration and population settlement." She resisted, arguing that the information had been collected through cruel means and for evil purposes, and is in any case highly suspect. The Nazi anthropologists often seem to have been absurdly insensitive to context. For example, they drew sweeping conclusions about alleged Russian physical and social traits on the basis of studies of half-starved Soviet soldiers in prisoner-of-war camps.

"The data in and of themselves were useless," she says. "We shouldn't give the Nazis a second opportunity by rehashing these old data."

The data will, however, be preserved for other purposes. The Nazi materials will soon be returned to Jagiellonian University, in Poland. (The Smithsonian will retain a digitized copy.) "What will be of most use to the people of Poland," Ms. Schafft says, "are, first, the records of Jews and others interviewed at the Tarnów ghetto. Those will give some families the last indication of where their relatives were. And, second, the amazing photographs of people in villages throughout Poland. There are portraits of hundreds, if not more than a thousand, identifiable individuals."

In a small way, she hopes, maintaining the collection in Poland will preserve the memory of a few of the victims of science -- and politics -- gone mad.

Some related moral dilemmas are chewed over in Biological Anthropology and Ethics: From Repatriation to Genetic Identity (State University of New York Press), a collection edited by Trudy R. Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

The book's 20 essays span a range of topics from the treatment of primates in the field (when is it acceptable to use anesthesia and radio collars?) to the sharing of data with colleagues (how quickly should scholars give their results to the major international DNA databases?).

Some of the most contentious debates, however, concern the ground rules for working with human remains. Ever since 1990, when Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or Nagpra, anthropologists have argued about how the law's provisions should be understood and enforced. Frederika A. Kaestle, an assistant professor of anthropology at Indiana University at Bloomington and a contributor to the book, says the most difficult debates concern the study of human remains that are more than 7,000 years old. In such cases, it is often impossible to determine any direct ancestry or cultural affiliation with modern American Indian groups.

In her own scholarship, Ms. Kaestle interprets the law's provisions very strictly, she says. "I won't work with remains that were found on private land. Because that material isn't covered under Nagpra it's a little too iffy for me ethically."

She is optimistic that even if the law is tightened, as some American Indian advocates have proposed, it will still be feasible for scholars to do DNA studies of ancient remains. "The climate is changing a bit," she says. "Some Native American groups are not only accepting but promoting this work as something that they're interested in."


Section: Research & Publishing

Volume 51, Issue 36, Page A17 (2005)