School of History Seminar Week 2: Haunting Biology: The Scientific Collection of Blood and Bones in Indigenous Australia

One Canberra night in 2009, an Aboriginal poet was haunted by a dead comparative anatomist who cut through her body with a scalpel. This article takes a leap of faith to consider this not as a freak event but as a reflection of the general condition of scientific research involving Indigenous people in Australia, and perhaps in other places. Kevin Hetherington’s (2004) analysis of the first and second burial of animate and inanimate objects argues that interrupting a second burial can lead to haunting. Through interwoven stories of the collection, storage and use of the bones and blood of Indigenous people, I explore how aspects of twentieth-century scientific collection and the bodily fragments it left behind are variously haunted.
I present a comparative history that spans from the collection of bones from what was thought to be a dying race in the early twentieth century, to the role of the ‘serological disciplines’ (principally human biology) in the founding of Indigenous studies in the 1960s, Indigenous resistance to the Human Genome Diversity Project in the 1990s, the repatriation of blood samples to groups in the Americas since 2000, and Indigenous-led efforts in the present to use old blood samples for genomic research, including to provenance unprovenanced bones. The Aboriginal poet experienced her haunting as a call to arms from the spirits of those whose bones had not yet returned home. I ask whether old blood samples similarly haunted, and how this would impact the efforts of Indigenous people to use them for their own technoscientific ends.

Emma Kowal is Professor of Anthropology in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University and Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics in the John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU. She is a cultural anthropologist who has previously worked as a medical doctor and public health researcher in Indigenous health settings. Her research interests include Indigenous-state relations and settler colonialism, racism and anti-racism, science and genomics. Current research projects include the impact of genomics on experiences of indigeneity and the role of human biology in the founding of Indigenous studies in the 1960s. She is the author of Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia (Berghahn, 2015). Her publications are available at

Date & time

Wed 27 Jul 2016, 4.15–5.30pm


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

Event series


School of History


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