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SEMINAR | The Uses of Indigenous Old People in the Conceptual Development of Human Evolutionary Science, c. 1860-1920


Professor Paul Turnbull, University of Tasmania

Start Date

14th Oct 2016 3:00pm

End Date

14th Oct 2016 4:30pm

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The Uses of Indigenous Old People in the Conceptual Development of Human Evolutionary Science, c. 1860-1920.

Presented by Professor Paul Turnbull, University of Tasmania

Friday14 October 2016 – 3.00pm to 4.30pm

Room 548 Humanities Building, Sandy Bay Campus

One question repeatedly asked by Indigenous Australians in the course of repatriating their ancestors is why they
became objects of Western scientic inquiry. In this seminar, I will talk about my current research on the uses to
which European metropolitan scientists put the bones of around two thousand Old People between 1860 and
These years saw the collecting of the remains of Old People in the context of new, biologically focused anthropologies in Britain, France and Germany. Some aspects of the scientic uses to which they were put are relatively well known. Tony Bennett and Lynette Russell, for example, have drawn attention to British Darwinian scientists’ invention of Indigenous primitivity in the 1860s on the basis of morphologically comparing Australian and Neanderthal crania. However, the spectrum of uses to which bones and soft tissue structures were put, and the contributions of this scientic work to the conceptual evolution of anthropology, have yet to be explored in any
systematic fashion.
In collaboration with Gareth Knapman, a historian at the ANU with shared interests in the history of anthropology,
I have begun a computationally based-conceptual analysis of the published record of British, French and
German anthropological and anatomical research between 1860-1914. Our prime interest is in what scientists
made of the Old People whose remains they acquired; but we hope our project will also generate new insights
into the uses of the remains of other Indigenous peoples by Western science, and why societies championing
biologically focused anthropologies were founded in Britain, France and Germany in the early 1860s.

Paul Turnbull is a historian and professor of digital humanities at the University of Tasmania. He has written extensively on the uses of the Indigenous dead by museums and scientic communities and the meanings and values of their repatriation. His research is currently supported by the Kimberley Aboriginal Arts and Culture Centre, the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority and the Torres Strait Regional Authority His book, Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead will be published by Palgrave in early 2017.

The Uses of Indigenous Old People