“Human Remains” by Helen MacDonald

When I picked this up remaindered in Manuka, I had no idea that it was award winning (The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for a First Book of History 2006); I was simply fascinated by the premise of the book. A history based on a thesis that researched the history of anatomical investigation and focused on on the impact of medical research on the treatment of the dead in Van Diemen’s Land.

While the exportation of native bodies for anatomical studies of “race” and ancestry isn’t news to anyone who has done some basic readings into the practice of body snatching, the more detailed descriptions of bidding wars and underhanded behaviour is sickly compelling. In my experience I have talked to Traditional Owners (TOs) concerned with repatriation of aboriginal remains removed by conservationists and archaeologists under a similar premise – the obtaining of biological knowledge – but usually the conflicts involve access rights, legitimacy of claims, and the ability of the community to safely house more fragile individuals. Care of duty and sensitivity to cultural needs and taboos has been central to all discussions of human remains I have ever been involved in, and the mercenary and proprietary attitude the anatomists take towards indigenous cultural identity had a very powerful effect on me.

I’m not even sure that I felt the shock as an archaeologist; I think more as a human who has lived in a society that practices burials, preservation of records and commemoration for hundreds of years, for someone who can trace through my own oral histories and family documents and heritage, the thought that the better part of a whole culture, a whole society being disassembled and removed from all meaningful context is abhorrent. It’s like watching someone die and being powerless to help. It’s knowing that humans can do things like that, that evokes a personal and horrific emotional reaction in my heart.

To recover from my own reactions, I should say now that the thesis also explores the treatment of convict corpses and some of the ways that women in particular were sometimes fated from the moment of arrival to death and dissection.  It uses historical documents to expose a lot of dastardly goings on, and does so with evocative and

I wouldn’t recommend this book for the queasy (or the pregnant), but it’s a very readable and well-rounded look at body-snatching and anatomical investigations in early Australia. Our history, while colonial, has never been as dry or innocently parochial as a lot of pop culture representations would have it.