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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 November, 2003, 04:54 GMT
Aborigines back UK bones panel
Cohuna skull, Natural History Museum
There are likely to be many claims from Australia
Australian Aborigines have welcomed a plan to set up a panel to oversee the repatriation of human remains held by British museums and universities.

But they say a wider inquiry is also needed to establish just how the body parts came into the possession of the UK institutions in the first place.

The idea of a panel to investigate and adjudicate on ownership claims comes from the Human Remains Working Group.

Commissioned by UK ministers, the group formally reported on Wednesday.

Campaigners have long pressurised curators to hand over old bones so that they can be buried in their tribal homelands.

Rights issue

At issue are the materials - which range from locks of hair to full skeletons - that were taken from foreign countries, largely in the 19th and 20th Centuries, by scientists, explorers and enthusiastic collectors.

It makes us very sad that our people and their spirits are locked up in London
Rodney Dillon
Researchers say this material has huge value to science even today - providing invaluable information about human origins and evolution, and the spread and development of disease.

But to indigenous groups, the collections are an affront to their customs and they claim many of the artefacts were effectively stolen by colonial explorers and hunters.

The groups say they should have every right - legal and moral - to repossess the material.

"The stolen remains need to be repatriated immediately," Rodney Dillon from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic), told BBC News Online.

"Then people need to come clean and say where the stolen remains came from... Just because they bought them doesn't mean to say they weren't stolen."

Local mechanisms

The Human Remains Working Group's chairman, Professor Norman Palmer, outlined his team's key findings to a Commons select committee.

"There is a compelling case for an open, public, objective resolution mechanism by which claims can be heard," he said.

He added that leaders, or elders, from affected communities, and not just direct descendants, should be able to lodge repatriation requests.

A National Human Remains Advisory Panel should be established to investigate those cases where an institution wanted to retain artefacts or contested a claim, Professor Palmer said.

Evidence from the US and Australia where repatriation legislation has already been introduced suggests such arguments are bound to arise.

Already, one of Professor Palmer's own colleagues has indicated his objections to some of the group's findings.

Sir Neil Chalmers, director of the Natural History Museum in London, has described the proposals for "an elaborate regulatory system" as unworkable and warned the recommendations would lead to the mandatory return of scientifically valuable objects.

Sir Neil wants to see museums left to establish their own mediation mechanisms.

"A change to the law, together with a clear ethical framework for decision-making, would enable us to conduct more open discussions with claimants, which we welcome," he said.

'Our history'

Most of the human remains in UK collections date back beyond 1850; some are tens of thousands of years old. Although much is of UK origin, a great deal does come from abroad.

Several hundred specimens - perhaps a thousand or more - could become the focus for repossession claims from, principally, Australia and the US.

UK legislation as it stands actually prevents repatriation in some circumstances - even in cases where curators are happy to hand over artefacts because they have no scientific value.

The primary recommendation of the Palmer group is to remove this restriction and make it possible for institutions to make discretionary decisions about specimens in their care.

Even so, it is clear from the US experience - of its Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act - that scientific institutions will fight a legal case to retain some specimens.

Dr Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, in Cambridge, said: "The scientific study of human remains has played a major role in revealing our history, especially for peoples and times without writing."

And he added: "We should be learning from skeletons, not reburying them - they are the remains of people still contributing to humanity and its knowledge of itself."

Increased pressure

Scientists say that by applying modern analytical techniques, they can use many old bones to discern patterns of migration in ancient human communities - who lived where, who mixed with whom and when.

The chemistry of the bones will very often record how an individual lived - and died.

Among the remains held at London's Natural History Museum, Mr Dillon said, were the skulls and leg bones of two Aboriginal men who were hunted down and killed by a white expedition in 1900.

Once dead, the men's skins were reportedly boiled off them on the spot, he explained.

"It makes us very sad that our people and their spirits are locked up in London... The museums are not caretakers - they are in charge of stolen remains," the Atsic's Culture, Rights and Justice Committee chairman said.

Atsic members are travelling to London to press their claims later this month.

Another of the report's major recommends is for the creation of a licensing authority to oversee the way institutions store and handle the human remains.

This is intended to ensure that museums and universities observe "the strictest standards of reverence and dignity, signifying respect for the deceased person" and for their descendents.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Juliet Dunlop
"Most British museums are reluctant to return human remains"



SEE ALSO:
Science argues to keep bones
16 May 03  |  Science/Nature
Human skulls are 'oldest Americans'
03 Dec 02  |  Science/Nature
Date for first Australians
19 Feb 03  |  Science/Nature
Fossils may be 'first Europeans'
11 May 00  |  Science/Nature


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