Sunday, May 22, 2011

Torres Strait skulls begin bone repatriation

London's Natural History Museum is to return the skulls of three indigenous people to Australia this weekend.

The body parts were collected in the Torres Strait Islands (TSI) off the northern coast of Queensland.

They are part of a wider group of remains from more than 100 individuals that will eventually go back.

Torres Strait Islanders campaigned for the repatriation of the material, which was acquired by explorers, missionaries and others in past centuries.

Local communities had regarded their removal as an affront to their culture and traditions - the souls of the dead had not been able to rest, the islanders said.

The skulls of the two adults and a child, acquired in the 1800s, will head in the first instance to the Australian National Museum in Canberra. Their release follows talks in the past few days between TSI community leaders and museum staff in London.

The repatriation is regarded as a "goodwill gesture" as the museum looks to build a long-term relationship with the TSI people that will allow scientific access to the remains to continue in the future.

"These items are recorded as having come from the Torres Strait but we don't know which island and we don't know who they are," Richard Lane, the director of science at the Natural History Museum (NHM), told BBC News.

"We said there would be a progressive transfer of authority and responsibility, and this is part of that."

The NHM has a huge collection of human specimens, some of them thousands of years old. While most of the material originates in the UK, a good deal of it has come into the possession of the museum down the years as a consequence of Britain's exploration and colonial past.

Whatever the circumstances of their acquisition, the remains are still deemed an important scientific resource. By applying modern analytical techniques to the bones, it is possible for researchers to discern patterns of migration in ancient human communities - who lived where, who mixed with whom and when.

It is even possible to say something about how people lived and what sort of diseases they carried. Such information is relevant even to modern populations.

"The Torres Strait people have an opportunity to contribute to global knowledge - about how their people fit into the bigger picture of how humans moved around the planet," said Dr Lane.

"This is something they have started to appreciate, and something I don't think they fully understood before we started this process."

The NHM's trustees agreed in February that the remains of 138 individuals known to have come from the TSI should go home.

The repatriated remains will include a range of material - everything from a single jaw bone up to a complete skeleton. There are even "trophy skulls". All of the material is over 100 years old; some of it almost 200 years old.

The trustees' decision followed 18 months of dialogue with TSI representatives in which both parties sought to understand the other's position and find a return policy that would meet each other's desires.

For the TSI communities, this has resulted in the progressive release of material over the next 12 months; for the museum, it means a route to continued access for research.

Ned David, a TSI representative, commented: "We are trying to find a way forward. It's paramount that there is a great deal of cultural respect for my people; we have some very strong beliefs about how we handle those who have passed on.

"At the same time, I don't think that means we have to close the door on having a relationship with the NHM. In this day and age, we are interested in what science can do for our people, and we are keen to build this relationship with the museum."

This is the second and largest release of material by the NHM. It has a number of other requests that its trustees are considering. And this situation is faced by other UK museums and scientific research centres as well.

Amos, Jonathan. 2011. "Torres Strait skulls begin bone repatriation". BBC News. Posted: May 6, 2011. Available online:

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