Africa: 19th Century Descendants’ Skulls Identified

Africa: 19th Century Descendants' Skulls Identified

Researchers have established a familial link between skulls collected for scientific purposes in the late 19th century and their living descendants in Tanzania.

The project began in 2017 when a team of researchers gained access to a significant collection of human remains (1,100 skulls) at the Museum of the History of Medicine at Charité in Berlin.

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“We were able to recover thousands of human remains,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Heritage Foundation, which participated in the project. The scientists worked with skulls from Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Next, the researchers aimed to determine the country of origin for each of the skulls in order to repatriate them.

“These skulls arrived in Germany and several other cities in Europe through collections of human remains from anthropological studies. These studies, which took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, involved measuring skulls from around the world. Why skulls? Because they formed the basis for this type of anthropological study which focused on measurements, and because the other parts of the skeleton were not really important for the type of research,” explained Hermann Parzinger.

A step towards restitution to families

Amidst the debate on cultural restitution, this discovery could facilitate the process for returning cultural objects or human remains to their rightful heirs. According to Hermann Parzinger, there is no ambiguity: the skulls should be returned to the living descendants in the countries concerned.

“For us, it is clear that all of these human remains must be returned because they were taken illegally. Furthermore, Europeans and other people illegally entered cemeteries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to conduct anthropological studies. For us, this is a desecration of graves. Of course, when possible, through DNA studies, which was the case for us, we were able to identify the descendants of those who were killed or died during the colonial period,” he advocated.

But the return operation still depends on an agreement between Germany and Tanzania.

In 2018, Germany had already returned the human remains of 30 Herero and Nama victims, individuals killed under colonial rule in Namibia. This restitution was the third, following those in 2011 and 2014.

In France, the University of Strasbourg announced in June that it had established a scientific council to assess its collection of African human remains following two inventory and restitution requests, one of which concerns the genocide of the Herero and Nama people by German colonial troops in Namibia between 1904 and 1908.

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