La Brea Woman: Image Controversy

La Brea Woman forensic reconstruction.

I came across this interesting article chronicling an emerging controversy in Los Angeles.  I never knew that human remains had been found in the La Brea tar pits, but a partial skeleton of a young female had been on display until recently in the George C. Page Museum there.  At some point, a museum  volunteer made forensic-style reconstructive drawings of this young woman.  Now the museum is trying to prevent their publication, a move which some claim is designed to help prevent their repatriation.

Are illustrations of human remains tantamount to display of the human remains themselves?  Is the display of a cast any different?  The forensic reconstructionist apparently used the cast, not the actual skull. But consider the process of making a cast: is not that a greater insult to the dead than merely handling their bones would be?  In any case, these forensic reconstructions contain a little too much interpretive latitude: consider the Kennewick man reconstruction whose resemblance to Patrick Stewart has done nothing to quell the notion Kennewick man was ‘Caucasian’. Further, the forensic reconstructions include disturbing “cutaways” revealing the reconstructive process and producing an otherworldly, inhuman appearance (see below).

So, is the La Brea story really about this:

The Page Museum doesn’t hide the fact that La Brea Woman resides in its storage facilities. But officials said that they believe it isn’t appropriate to display something purporting to be La Brea Woman when it is only conjecture or speculation.

Is the controversy  designed to guard interpretative privilege of these remains?  Until recently these were apparently on display with a holographic effect projecting a naked body over the top:

La Brea Woman is on display in the Page Museum in a light-box display that might frighten young children. A hologram technique shows La Brea Woman’s upright skeleton and then, with the special-effects lighting, artificial muscles, skin and hair appear on her bones to show you what she might have looked like in life – an interesting, but unsettling look back in time.

I suspect the museum is aiming less to avoid repatriation of these remains which might be unavoidable anyway (surely they are a NAGPRA-bound institution if they accept any federal subsidies or money), and is more interested in guarding their monopoly on the display and interpretation.  Every diorama and reconstruction in that museum is also “only conjecture or speculation” after all, so they hardly can play the “just the facts” card.

I don’t believe the Museum’s motives so I am linking to the images here – if this makes it more likely that repatriation happens, so much the better.  I mean, this is the same museum with this tasteful diorama!

La Brea Woman represented as Terminator.

La Brea Woman represented as a Cyborg.

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3 responses to “La Brea Woman: Image Controversy

  1. The NAGPRA didn’t exist in 1914, or whenever these womans’ skull was dug up. Therefore, it is grandfathered. Therefore, there can be no claim under NAGPRA for the bones.
    I take some issue with the resonstructor, Melissa Cooper, wasn’t it? She was biased toward making it look asian.
    Looking at the last drawing, the ‘cyborg’, this definitely looks caucasian. Why is it that in the other three pictures, the jaw has rounded, the nose has flattened and widened out, lips got thicker, the eyes are slanted (or, one of them anyway), and the forehead shortened? The other three drawings don’t even look like the same person, compared with the forth.
    It’s hard to find a picture of the skull. There’s one on wikipedia, shown at an angle. It looks like a long headed skull. Very caucasian looking to me.
    What the museum is trying to hide here, i think, is that this La Brea Woman was a White, caucasian woman. This being the oldest skeleton in Los Angeles, and, I guess, in California, it would be evidence that White European people were the first in California, and not the amer-indian.

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  2. Hi Sunny Meadow,

    Thanks very much for your comment.

    So far as I know, NAGPRA does not have a grandfather clause – many old collections have been found subject to NAGPRA and have been repatriated. In fact, one of the main motivations for NAGPRA was to enable tribal groups to repatriate human remains which were collected in the early days of research and had been languishing un-examined in museum basements.

    Also, the oldest skeletal remains from California would be Arlington Springs woman, dating to about 10,900 14C years old. http://bit.ly/agCZZ5

    There is no evidence that this is the skeleton of a European woman and my professional opinion would be that is extremely unlikely, indeed vanishingly unlikely. One point of interest is that many of the known human remains from this very early period in the Americas do not look particularly similar to the more recent human remains of aboriginal Americans. This is not surprising, since there was some 10,000 years of adaptive radiation into the varied niches of the Americas and subsequent tinkering with the human phenotype as cultural and natural changes occurred. Unfortunately, this lack of similarity has opened the doors to a lot of casual and amateur craniology often put into the service of racist research agendas.

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  3. If you look at her website, the “cyborg” image is another reconstruction she did. I don’t think it’s representing la brea woman.

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