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March 28, 2023 36 mins

“Prime harvest”—that’s how one early 20th-century explorer described his collection of Icelandic human skulls. But why did he “harvest” those skulls in the first place? And what should happen to them now more than a century after they were collected? This case of the Icelandic skulls reveals an interconnected story of eugenics, international law, and the limits of current repatriation efforts. 

As reported by Adam Netzer Zimmer, an Iceland-based anthropologist, we hear how a community once targeted by anthropologists is now expanding our ideas of how to ethically handle human remains.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod. Cat Jaffee was the editor for this piece, with help from producer Ann Marie Awad. Seth Samuel was the audio editor and sound designer. The executive producers were Cat Jaffee and Chip Colwell. 

Adam Netzer Zimmer is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, specializing in biocultural anthropology. His research focuses on the rise of race-based anatomical science in 19th- and early 20th-century Iceland and the U.S. He is also interested in queer and feminist perspectives in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology, particularly in the history of science. Adam’s work has been supported by a Fulbright/National Science Foundation Arctic Research Grant, an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Leifur Eiríksson Foundation Fellowship. Previously, he was the laboratory manager for the UMass Taphonomic Research Facility and is currently a co–primary director of the Rivulus Dominarum Transylvanian Bioarchaeology project in Baia Mare, Romania.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Check out these related resources:

·   “Harvard’s Eugenics Era” in Harvard Magazine

·   Museums: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)

·   Discovery: The Autobiography of Vilhjálmur Stefánsson

·   Traveling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjálmur Stefánsson by Gísli Pálsson

Episode sponsor:

·   This episode is included in season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is part of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship funded with the support of a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

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