Scott Speicher’s Body Was Never Missing, and Other Musings Over the Dead

I was digging a one-by-one-meter hole in the front of the rock shelter known locally as “Bat Cave.” The Efe (Pygmy) men that were helping me had gotten pretty good at identifying prehistoric pottery, chipped stone tools, bone, and the miscellaneous other items one finds on an archaeological site. At one point, I handed up a chunk of clay-rich soil and asked one of the guys to break it open very slowly and carefully because I saw a bit of bone sticking out of one side. Then I went back to work squaring up the bottom of the hole and getting ready to start a new layer. That’s when I heard this:

“Oh, look, a tooth. A human tooth.”

Ooops.

One never knows when one is going to run into a burial, but I can tell you that there certainly is an optimal time for it, and a preliminary test pit is not the optimal time. Better to find the burial later on when you are more prepared. But, well, that is how it goes sometimes.

So I came up out of the hole to have a look. I looked. Aha! I thought to myself. Finally, something I know more about than these guys!

“Nope, not human.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am. Look at this tooth. Then look at these teeth,” opening my mouth and showing him all my teeth. “Eee aee ing ihn ere at ooks ike is?”

“Nope. You’re right, it’s not human.”

“Hey, you can be so stupid sometimes,” chimed in another of the guys. “That’s a monkey tooth. I’m sure of it. Of course, how would you know, since you’ve never been close to a monkey!”

That got a laugh, because monkey is one of the main thing these guys hunt, so to say another man has not been close to a monkey is a dig at his hunting abilities.

And it was indeed a monkey. But it prompted me to resume an ongoing conversation that archaeologists tend to have with the local people on a regular basis.

“So, how would you feel if we found a human, say an Efe (Pygmy), buried here or somewhere?”

“Mbore!” was the answer.

Mbore means…nothing, used up, meaningless, having nothing to add, uninteresting. Was my question uninteresting?

“What do you mean: Mbore?” I asked, seeking clarification.

“Mbore. When you are dead, you are mbore. Who cares what happens to your body! We’ll dig up all the bodies if you want!”

Which, really, is an idiomatic way of saying, “We don’t care about no stinking bodies” but just in case, I asked…

“…All of the bodies? Do you know where all of the bodies are buried? Any bodies?”

“Nope, not out here. Just back near the villages.”

Right. Me too. I knew as well where most of the recently dead people were buried, more or less. Why, I even buried some of them myself. But out here in the forest, there must be some places to avoid (recent burials) as well as some places to investigate (ancient burials). (As it turns out, another archaeologist who went to the Ituri Forest after I did managed to find some of these burials, and one was even found in the vicinity of the test pit I was digging at the moment. And he was prepared, reasonably well-funded, and found very interesting results. But that is another story.)

Burial is one of the most basic cultural practice for most peoples, and there are occasions when the method of burial is an excellent indicator of cultural boundaries or geographical centers. Archaeologists pay close attention to this sort of thing, which is why I thought it fascinating when I investigated the written literature on Pygmy burial practices and found out that they have in historic times in this one region practiced pretty much all the different kinds of treatment of the dead known. To these folks, burying the dead was like trends in music in the West. Every decade seems to have its own way of doing it, and some decades are remembered more fondly than others.

I also found it very interesting to read about finding the body of Navy Captain Michael Scott Speicher. Speicher was shot down and killed in Iraq during Gulf War I, and in fact, he was the first casualty of the war. His body was never recovered. It was not initially found at the crash site.

It turns out that local Bedouin had found his body and, as is their custom, they buried it. Nice of them to go through the trouble. His body was not found until someone asked around, and someone said, “Oh, that body? You’ve been looking for that body? The Bedouin buried it! Over there!”

On hearing this news, President Barack Obama remarked that this is “a reminder of the selfless service that led him to make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.” On hearing the news, I thought, “Jeezh…how often do they just not bother to ASK???”

People tend to ignore the Bedouin, and there are other people around the world who get ignored as well. I wonder how may U.S. “MIA” soldiers died in Vietnam who were buried there by people who were being ignored. Has anyone asked?

The MSNBC piece reporting this notes that “Sands hid fate of Gulf War pilot.” No, not really. Not seeing what is really there…the military not seeing it, the governments of Iraq and the U.S. not seeing it, and the press not seeing it…hid this event from our eyes.

So, after establishing that the tooth was a monkey and not a person, we went back to digging and sifting. Then, I asked the same question I’d asked a half dozen times before.

“Hey, the villagers, they lived in this cave during The Troubles, right?” I was referring to the Simba Rebellion when everyone fled the roadside villages.

“Yes, they did. They came to live with us Efe. We tried to help them.”

“A lot of people died, right?”

“Everybody starved, Greg. Most of the children and old people died. Lots of people died.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Dig…dig…dig…dig….

“So…where are the bodies buried?”

Silence for a while.

“Look, another bone. I think this one is an antelope.”

I never did get an answer to that question.

So, on behalf of the President of the United States and the Secretary of War, as well as the family of Captain Michael “Scott” Speicher and the press, all of whom seem to have become inexplicably discourteous, I would like to thank the Bedouin for having properly treated his body according to custom.

More on the Congo here and here.

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2 Responses to “Scott Speicher’s Body Was Never Missing, and Other Musings Over the Dead”

  1. August 5th, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    In many Middle Eastern cultures, the proper burial of the bodies of strangers is taken very seriously. In Judaism for example, this is known as a “meit mitzvah” (which means more or less “death commandment” and many forms of Islam have similar attitudes. The Bedouins were just following pretty old Middle Eastern practices in burying the body. I do have to wonder what the Bedouins would have done if they had a situations similar to the one you mention at the end, with many people dying in a short timespan. Many cultures seem more willing to simplify or ignore basic burial customs when they have a lot of bodies to deal with.

  2. August 7th, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Good question. I’m sure the Bedouin have been in that situation before. Someone probably knows the answer to that question. Eventually they will run into this post and answer it.

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