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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 July 2004, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Bone return consultation launched
Cohuna skull
Scientists fear collections of crucial scientific value will be lost forever
The UK government has launched a consultation document to consider the repatriation of human remains held in Britain to aboriginal groups.

Thousands of ancient human parts - from hair samples to whole skeletons - have been collected by UK museums.

The latest initiative will review the report issued last year by the Working Group on Human Remains.

It recommended scientists should seek out descendants for permission to hold on to body parts up to 500 years old.

Scientists would like to retain materials - some of them thousands of years old - because of what they can reveal 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.

Changes made

The consultation will examine the sufficiency of laws on holding remains and whether a panel should mediate repatriation claims.

Some scientists working in the area claim their views were not represented on the Working Group on Human Remains.

They argue the advisory group's report took an "extreme" standpoint and that, as a result, the debate around the issue has become polarised.

There will always be a gulf as long as there is an unwillingness to accept that this material is of tremendous scientific value
Several experts have welcomed the consultation as a new opportunity to influence the process. But others, who were less than impressed with the 2003 report, are sceptical of the plans.

The government said the consultation document, titled Care Of Historic Human Remains, would be another step towards dealing with claims from indigenous people in the most "appropriate" way.

"I hope this consultation will ultimately lead to the establishment of a fair and equitable framework for the holding of human remains in UK museums and for considering claims for their repatriation," said arts minister Estelle Morris.

"The government has already acted to implement the key recommendation of the Working Group on Human Remains - namely that the law should be changed to allow museums to move human remains out of their collections."

Some museums had argued that they were prohibited by legislation from releasing material.

The Human Tissue Bill, which has not yet been passed, would give them powers to "de-accession" (or release) the material - knocking down a key hurdle to repatriation. (Some involved in the debate have always regarded this argument as a "smokescreen".)

Minority report

Lyndon Ormond-Parker, a researcher on Australian aboriginal cultural affairs, welcomed the recommendation on de-accessioning.

Mr Ormond-Parker said he had not yet seen the consultation document, but said his initial reaction was that the Working Group had covered most of the issues.

Kennewick Man, AP
Is a case like the wrangle over Kennewick Man inevitable in the UK?
This group, chaired by Professor Norman Palmer, delivered its report in November 2003. It said scientists should have to examine how the collections held in their institutions came into their possession.

They should then have to seek out any possible living descendants to get their consent to keep them or to continue to use them in research.

The final 2003 document consisted of a "majority" report and a statement of dissent by the director of the Natural History Museum. This is referred to as the "minority report" and it proposes a number of alternative recommendations to those of Professor Palmer's report.

The proposals in this minority report will be considered during the consultation.

One insider told BBC News Online: "My feeling is that we should have moved beyond the stage of polarising polemic. We all get a bit heated when we are painted as either emotional and irrational on the one hand or dreadful exploiters on the other.

"To answer the question, there is a need for a further round to make sure that point is well made."

Groups are made up of individuals and are not necessarily unanimous in their views, and more than one group can claim to speak for the same human remains
Dr Sebastian Payne, English Heritage
But many scientists are still fearful that, whatever the outcomes of the consultation, the burden of dealing with multiple claims will cripple institutions.

"There is a considerable cost burden associated with the auditing of collections and the seeking out of appropriate contacts. There's a commitment being made there and we need to make sure that it's justified," said one scientist.

It will be for scientists to validate any claims to human remains held in collections for which they are custodians. This may be relatively easy for a group or individual living in the UK, say insiders, but it may be nigh-on impossible to authenticate claims from some remote territories of the globe.

And there are some who fear that the potential for blanket claims demanding the return of whole collections would inevitably lead to disputes similar to the Kennewick Man case in the US.

This has concerned the 9,000-year-old skeleton discovered in 1996 in Washington State which has been the subject of a legal wrangle between scientists and native American groups for eight years.

Scientific value

Other researchers also want claims to material weighed up against their importance to science.

"One ultimately wants to have a dialogue over the future of this material, but there will always be a gulf as long as there is an unwillingness to accept that this material is of tremendous scientific value," said one insider.

"The problem with Kennewick Man was that you couldn't say: 'this is phenomenally interesting'. You either had to say: 'it belongs to this group' or 'it doesn't belong to this group'. Now that tips the whole balance."

The Palmer report also proposed that any institution holding human remains should have to be licensed and meet requirements for making information available to possible claimants.

Many interests

Dr Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, commented that it was important to be clear "about how closely a group needs to be related to the remains in order for a claim to become pre-eminent".

"It's easy enough to see that a descendent or close relative can speak legitimately for the remains of a dead human being, and their views should in principle be pre-eminent," he told BBC News Online.

"But it's more difficult when one starts to consider the position of groups that are more distantly related.

"Groups are made up of individuals and are not necessarily unanimous in their views, and more than one group can claim to speak for the same human remains."

Dr Payne cited an example in which archaeologists discovered a medieval Jewish cemetery near York.

Although the archaeologists were in consultation with the chief rabbi on how best to investigate the human remains in a sensitive manner, orthodox groups stepped in and successfully demanded that the remains were reburied as soon as possible.

The consultation period will run from 28 July until 29 October 2004.

New wrangle over Kennewick bones
21 Jul 04 |  Science/Nature
Science speaks out on bone return
19 May 04 |  Science/Nature
Aborigines back UK bones panel
05 Nov 03 |  Science/Nature
Science argues to keep bones
16 May 03 |  Science/Nature

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