The A-hole: A True Human Universal?

As a member of the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, I recently became aware of a new development in a controversy currently underway on the island of Kaua’i regarding the disturbance of some Native Hawaiian burials for the construction of a private residence.  The practice of archaeology has been particularly contentious in the islands since the convergence of three historical events: 1) massive development and construction, particularly associated with the tourist industry; 2) the passage of federal and state antiquities protection laws mandating the involvement of archaeologists in cultural resource management; 3) the revitalization of Native Hawaiian culture, and its members’ mobilization in protection of their homeland and heritage.  Arguably these three, often divergent, interest groups came of age in the 1960’s and have been locked in a dance of conflicting and converging interests ever since. (*1)

One of the developments of this structure of the conjuncture (a la Marshall Sahlins) was the establishment of Island Burial Councils that are empowered by State law to determine the final disposition of any human remains that are discovered.  In the case mentioned above, a group of Native Hawaiians, known as Kanaka Maoli Scholars, have protested the handling of the review and recommendations of the Kaua’i – Ni’ihau Burial Council with regards to a property located at Naue (  Kanaka Maoli Scholars argue that the State Historic Preservation Division approved a Burial Treatment Plan against the clear objections of the Burial Council, thus allowing building permits to be issued illegally, and concrete foundations to be poured on known gravesites.  Meanwhile, the homeowner has filed a civil suit against members of the Native Hawaiian community alleging trespassing and harassment, among other things.

Whatever breaches of process may or may not have occurred in the course of managing this particular site (and since I currently live on the Mainland, I have no inside information from either side of this mess), I can tell you that most of the archaeologists that I know who work in Hawai’i consider it a tremendous privilege to be included in any aspect of stewardship of this amazing cultural legacy, and many experience daily life like an E.R. doctor: in a never-ending state of triage racing to save patients from the disease “development-fever.”  All the while under-staffed, with too few resources, and constantly challenged by the politicization of the process.  There is no universal archaeological site healthcare in the United States, and all too often the decisions regarding which patients to save and rehabilitate, and which to simply “patch-up” and send on their way, are made by the interests of capital.  Bound by our own Hippocratic oath, most archaeologists would truly love to save and cherish every patient, seeing each and every one of them thrive. (*2)

Well, gentle reader, as many of you know, much of modernist anthropology has been preoccupied with the search for human universals.  In my opinion these efforts usually end in one of two ways, either the “universal” reached turns out to be amazingly narrow in scope, or mind-bogglingly broad in scope.  There does seem to be one that keeps cropping up, however, and that is illustrated by the latest opinion expressed in the Naue controversy.  As part of their campaign to draw public attention to what they feel is the unfettered desecration of their ancestors’ burials, Kanaka Maoli Scholars sent copies of their recent protest letter (see link above) to a variety of constituents, including high ranking executives at the company owned by the homeowner.  One of these employees, in an inadvertent case of “I’m rubber, you’re glue, when you act like an asshole, it looks bad for you,” has provided more evidence for one of the most convincing universals ever promulgated… the “assholes, every community has at least one, and s/he will usually self-identify within the first 24 hours of contact” universal.

This guy responded to the letter of concern sent to him by the Kanaka Maoli Scholars with a single line.  He asks, “So how do you know the people buried out there weren’t assholes??”  Wow – a whole new principle to guide historic preservation (and with any luck, human resource decisions at his firm).  Maybe the asshole is a kind of human universal – after all, we all have them, but it takes a special Homo sapiens to talk out of his.


(1) To read a series of powerful essays relevant to Native Hawaiian sovereignty, colonialism, and academia, read Haunani-Kay Trask’s, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i (1999).

(*2) There is no question, as with medical doctors, there are some archaeologists who are in the business for what profit there is to be had, and others who are simply not as competent as one might wish.