The World Famous William M. Bass III Collection of Native American Skeletal Remains from South Dakota Is Heading Home to the High Plains

Yesterday afternoon, I received an e-mail message containing a bit of shocking news from a fellow archaeologist. He was passing on a message from an old friend of ours, Dr. Tony Cavender, who is an Emeritus Professor of Cultural Anthropology at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. The William M. Bass III Collection of Native American human skeletal remains, which has been housed by the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) for the past 50 years, is leaving for the Northern High Plains in Spring 2020.

Two Native American tribes (Arikara and Mandan) will be happy to receive and rebury the skeletal remains of their ancestors. I understand why this needs to happen. However, strictly from a general scientific standpoint and my personal scientific viewpoint, it is kind of sad to see them go.

It was one of the largest Native American skeletal collections in the United States, and this collection was a tremendous nationally and internationally recognized scientific resource. Thousands of undergraduate and graduate students in physical anthropology and American archaeology cut their baby teeth in anthropological learning via this wonderful collection. Dr. Bass used elements of it to teach me and many other archaeology students the fine art of identifying and siding human skeletal remains—particularly badly fragmented remains. In addition, we learned how to determine age at time of death, sex, and stature. We also learned how to identify paleopathological lesions and how to perform standard anthropometric measurements on crania and other complete bones in this collection.

I would also like to add the fact—and it is a fact—that Dr. Bass (a.k.a. Dr. Death) taught us to always treat these Native American remains with gentleness and respect because the bones of each person represented the ancient loved ones of our Native American friends and neighbors. In other words, each set of human skeletal remains represented a flesh and blood person who was deeply loved and cared for by the members of their families and tribes. Long ago, tears and heartfelt human grief were associated with the death and burial of each person.

Therefore, no weird college student horseplay or careless shenanigans were ever allowed or tolerated with the elements of this skeletal collection or any other human skeletal collections in the Department of Anthropology at UTK or at the on-campus Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture. Any shenanigans, horseplay, or failures of respect with these collections would have incurred a certain student death sentence from Dr. Death——all students understood that——and they also understood that no college student on Earth had ever tasted true death until they had experienced it at the hands of Dr. Death. Needless to say, the collections remained safe, and no students died. Dr. Bass made sure the skeletal collections at UTK were appropriately curated and cared for at all times.

You may read a short news article from the Cable News Network (CNN) about the impending departure of the William M. Bass III Collection from UTK. Please click on the following safe link:

2,000 Native American Remains, Which Sat at a University for 50 Years, Will Soon Go Home

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