So what if archaeology is stopped dead in its tracks?

What will be the consequences if Israel’s already restrictive laws on archaeological excavation get even tougher?

“An enormous loss to science,” said Donald Ortner, former acting director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and a physical anthropologist who has worked with the Bab edh-Dhra’ excavations in Jordan.

“It’s ironic that Israel, so progressive in much of its science, has taken this direction. It’s the modern equivalent of a book burning,” Ortner told BAR.

Physical anthropologists fear that their discipline, at least in Israel, will be deprived of its most critical materials: the bones of ancient men and women that tell scientists so much about our ancestors—and indeed about ourselves.

Skeletal remains are one of the few direct sources of information about mankind’s physiological history, according to Patricia Smith, a physical anthropologist at Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical School. “Such research is a vital component of evolutionary medicine, in that it enables scientists to trace the pattern and development of diseases in different places and at different times,” Smith told BAR.

Much has already been learned about the evolutionary history of such diseases as malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy and even retroviruses. Moreover, ancient human remains provide the only evidence of the long-term effects of technology and socioeconomic status on the growth of the body, disease and aging. “It is unfortunate that the current restrictions have been imposed at a time when potential applications of skeletal analyses have vastly increased,” Smith said. Scientists can now use medical imaging to study the inner structures of even heavily fossilized skeletons. DNA has been extracted from bones millions of years old, providing crucial information concerning the history of genetic disorders. Scientists at Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical School, for instance, have isolated a mutation of the gene that causes thalassemia (a fatal blood disease) in the 500-year-old remains of a child. They now hope to trace the evolution of the gene and its rate of mutation in earlier societies.

Apart from their importance in paleontology and archaeology, skeletal collections are necessary for teaching anatomy in medical schools. They also provide material essential to forensic anthropology; police and forensic experts need to study bones to learn to identify missing persons or accident victims—as to sex, age or ethnic group, for example.

By depriving physical anthropologists of their lifeblood, we also lose important insights into the behavior of our predecessors. According to Ortner, by examining human bones, physical anthropologists can determine genetic and other physiological patterns establishing ethnic relationships among ancient populations. This information can be crucial to archaeologists trying to map out migrations, demographic shifts and even cultural dissemination. Cultural products like pottery or tools, for example, can move a long distance without a corresponding population movement; an Egyptian pot found in Persia does not in itself imply the presence of Egyptians there. But a study of genetic and skeletal material may supply the needed clues about human population shifts.

Physical anthropology can supplement the results of archaeology, Ortner said, in other ways as well—especially the study of urban development. We know, for instance, that the denser the population, the easier the transmission of disease. Thus the rise of towns should be associated with new diseases and greater incidences of certain diseases.

Ortner believes he has discovered evidence of this in cases of leprosy and tuberculosis (which physical anthropologists can detect in the spine). Tuberculosis is a particularly interesting example: Biologists believe that tuberculosis in humans was originally associated with bovine tuberculosis. The presence of human tuberculosis has been established in the Near East from the late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age, but not earlier, possibly throwing light on early herding practices and, in turn, on the development of early towns.

Ancient human bones, like Scheherazade, have a thousand and one stories to tell. Enforcing their silence amounts to a kind of tyranny—not so much of the dead over the living, but of the living over both the living and the dead.