Imagine if you were an archeologist or a historian. You stand alone at the mouth of a cave. There’s a large boulder blocking the mouth of the cave. You get help to remove this door that stands guard to the cave. You are not sure what you will find when this door finally opens. You could even say that you’re not sure what you’re even looking for.

With the help of your team, you manage to move the large boulder that is blocking your path. Inside the cave, you find skeletons, writings on the wall and even the remains of dead animals. This cave is a place of complete darkness. You get down on your knees and as gently as you can, you remove a thigh bone which is trapped underneath the dirt. You assume it once belonged to someone who lived. It is not always easy to tell apart human bones from animal bones. How did these people end up in this cave? Did someone trap them there? They probably died of starvation, dehydration and a lack of sunlight.

You realise that the only way out of the cave for the beings whose remains you found was death. There was no other way out. At the corner of the cave, you see a small opening. It’s only big enough for a rat to crawl in and out. Perhaps that was the only food source for the people who were trapped within this place where there was only darkness.

What should you do with the bones? You probably won’t be able to locate their relatives. Do you cremate the bones? Do you offer the deceased a burial? Or do you take those remains–those bare bones that have survived death–and study them in hopes that you will be able to reconstruct or gleam into a past that no longer exists?

These are the bare bones of what once existed. It doesn’t exist anymore. Whoever these remains belong to, they’re no longer around to tell their stories or recount what happened to them. Does their spirit linger in this place–in this cave? Did they think that ‘someone’ completely unknown to them would posthumously discover their remains one day, so long after their departure from the cave?

A proper funeral was probably a pipe dream to those who perished in that cave. The only thought on their mind was probably that of survival–a bleak and even impossible thought given the circumstances.

But now that the bones have been found, what happens? The choice is yours.

The Bare Bones

A thigh bone is a rather unique and peculiar artefact. The thighbone is the longest and strongest bone in the human body. Because the femur is so strong, it usually takes a lot of force to break it.

If, within the bare bones of the past, we find a bone whose broken femur was broken and later healed, it is evidence that someone has helped the person who was injured. A ‘healer’ has bound up the wound, carried the person to safety and has tended to the person through to a recovery. Helping someone else in a time of need is where the story of civilisation begins.

For humans, risk-taking behaviour has gone hand in hand with the birth of clans, tribes and later civilisation. A human will attempt to do what it is not biologically capable of doing by placing himself at great personal risk. Humans have historically travelled and even settled in places that we’re not naturally adapted to and we are thus predisposed to a higher rate of injury. Humans also take part in a phenomena called war where we purposefully try to injury one another. Not only do we possess the tools to kill each other, we also possess the tools to heal one another.

In 2011, the Vietnamese news media went into a frenzy over a set of unidentified human remains. The remains are said to belong to a fallen soldier of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war and they were believed to have been stolen on a train. After the thief abandoned them, they were buried in an unmarked grave in the town of Yên Bái.

If you were an archeologist or a historian, how would an unexpected encounter with the bare bones of the past shape your career? Would you see, or perhaps feel, a connection between these bones–this remaining remnant of a past era–and yourself? Would it leave a deep impression on you? Would it offer you some clue regarding what you should do next?

I have continued to research the memory politics of the 1979 war and to investigate the nationwide movement to find, identify, and in many cases return to their hometowns the remains of soldiers who died in this most recent of Vietnam’s 20th-century wars.

TÂM T. T. NGÔ, Bones of contention: Situating the dead of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war

The political scientist Achille Mbembe asserts that ultimate expression of sovereignty resides in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die. This perspective helps us understand that sovereignty is rooted not only in rational choice and collective will, but is also a product of systematic and state-sanctioned violence.

A war inevitably always produces unclaimed bones and these bones can threaten the order and the hegemony that ‘the Authorities’ may want to either create or maintain. In cultures where ancestral veneration and filial piety is a long-standing tradition, it would not be considered an anomaly that the said culture would make offerings to seek to make contact with the spirit that once resided in those bones. This could be done via a medium, prayers or any other culturally appropriate and time-tested method.

In this context, the bones were powerful reminders of the wars that were never spoken about. A connection is later made between those who had suffered during the war and with those who survived those very same wars. To those who feel a connection to this severed past, it is both very personal and very painful. These bones serve as reminders and remnants of traumatic experiences that occurred during the war. By burying or cremating the bones with as much care and respect as possible, and tending the afterlife rites, it is believed to appeased the spirit of the deceased as well as make peace with their collective past of suffering.

As the bones cannot speak, it is perhaps up to us to make peace with the bare bones of the past. When ‘the Authorities’ choose to deny these bones a hearing into the recognised histories of a nation, they continue to remain unidentified objects. Are we seeking a diplomatic solution or a personal one? Are these even the bones of a hero?

To placate the collective psyche of a nation, it can be argued that every society must confront the darkest chapters of its past. Families and political agendas that sweep these painful histories under the rug can be effective for a limited period of time as people focus on their survival and rebuilding efforts after a long period of war and instability.

Every war leaves a legacy that has a lasting but repressed and controversial impact. The way we archive, restore and you could even say ‘collect’ these memories–or not collect them–are influenced by cultural forces and social norms. These memories, these bare bones, have also been connected with the construction of a shared identity. Monuments, much like bones, keep alive the memories of conflict and what it meant for a group of people.

But unlike monuments, the bare bones of the past are perhaps best left buried or given a proper cremation. Episodic memory, especially at it pertains to a past that cannot be known, can also arguably neither be reconstructed. But it can, however, be reborn and re-birthed.

The Human Brain

From the moment we are born, the human brain is bombarded by an immense amount of information about ourselves and the world. So, how do we hold on to everything we’ve learned and experienced? Memories. Some of these memories are our own, and some of these memories belong to the people who left those memories with us.

To understand how we remember things, it’s helpful to understand how we forget. Amnesia is usually the result of some kind of trauma to the brain–such as a head injury, a stroke, a brain tumour or chronic alcoholism. Our memories could also simply begin fading away once they are no longer required for our survival.

Memories, however, can also be stored outside the brain through writing, photography, objects and other record-keeping mechanisms. It is not possible or feasible for any brain to hold all of its memories–even of its own lifetime.

Different areas of the brain, however, form and store different kinds of memories and different processes may be at play for each. Emotional responses such as fear reside in a region of the brain called the amygdala. Memories of the skills you learned are associated with a region called the striatum. The hippocampus is crucial for forming, retaining and recalling declarative memories. The temporal lobes play a crucial role in forming and recalling memories.

In cases where the bare bones of the past are found, we are not speaking of an individual’s memories, but of a collective or even genetic memory. It is about how groups remember their shared past.

From national to local to familial: groups within groups will remember their history or a particular episodic event entirely differently. Each of us has, in addition to our own memories, the collective memories of any important social group to which we belong or have belonged. These collective memories can be about facts or about interpretations, as in, the remembrance of the way a particular incident or series of events affected us. The collective memories of a people can and do change over generations.

Fragile Memories

I have been watching a Korean show on Netflix called Bulgasal: Immortal Souls. The characters in the show have been reincarnating together for a thousand years. They each have their individual memories which function as a fragment of different puzzle pieces–without the perspective and processing aspect of that memory.

Things appear to be a certain way, but once we add the various perspectives together as well as the greater historical episodes within which those memories were formed, a new story begins to emerge for the viewers as well as the actors.

Within each human, there reside a continuum of memories–some of which we no longer consciously remember and need to recall. Others memories which we have held onto, we later realise that they were entirely false. Even when we have recorded the events of the past, missing fragments appear once we come together to reconstruct what happened, how it happened and try to decide what we will allow to happen in the future.

One aspect that rung true and loud as I watched the show was that the people who created those haunting memories together–had, in effect, become entirely different people by the time they came together and remembered what happened a thousand years prior.

The world had changed, they had changed and even their relationships to each other had changed. Prior enemies had become friends. Sworn rivals had become potential lovers. Friends had turned into enemies. They had, in essence, made new memories which rendered the old ones obsolete.

By piecing together the past, they were only stalling their future. At the same time, however, it was only by piecing together the past that they were able to arrive at a place of reconciliation. It was only by remembering that they were able to make peace and finally forgive and slowly forget.

The show, itself, has two characters who are able to access the past without any academic protocol. One of the characters was a shaman and the other character could access memories through touch. These supernatural abilities allowed the rest of the characters to glimpse into the past and the future.

I suppose that in instances where we have no memories and where we cannot access them via conventional means, this may be our only hope and last resort. But if we choose to not remember and not recall, then the only thing that may await us is not the past, but the future. But without the past to inform the future, we are perhaps doomed to endlessly re-create it without ever understanding why.

Perhaps it is not so much that we need to remember lest we forget. It is perhaps that once we do remember, with as much clarity as we can fathom, we will finally be free to forget.

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