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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 13:58 GMT
Aborigines' court fight delayed
Natural History Museum   Image: PA
The museum wants to conduct tests before it returns the remains
A High Court case to stop tests on the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines has been deferred until 7 March.

Australian aboriginal leaders will give evidence against London's Natural History Museum, which currently holds the 19th Century remains.

The museum has agreed to return the specimens, but not until tests are complete. It will argue that the tests will help the study of human evolution.

The case was delayed because more parties wanted to make submissions.

These include the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Australian Government, the Minority Rights Group and the Commission for Racial Equality.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), which is bringing the legal action through the Australian High Commission, complained the tests desecrated the beliefs of its community.

The dead are said to be "souls in torment" until properly buried, according to aboriginal custom.

"They would never dare to do these experiments to the human remains of Jews or Roma or Scots or Manx Islanders," said Michael Mansell of the TAC.

"That they intend to mutilate our ancestors without our consent shows that they have not lost the same primitive mindset of the first English settlers, who treated our people as sub-humans."

But the Natural History Museum said in a statement: "The data collected from the Tasmanian remains is of significance to the global scientific community as the once isolated nature of the aboriginal population of Tasmania makes the collection irreplaceable for research."

Panel 'compromise'

The Tasmanian materials were largely collected in the 19th Century by George Augustus Robinson who had been contracted by the colonial government of the day to clear lands by force for European settlers.

On his death, the remains were passed into the possession of other individuals and eventually deposited in UK institutions, and then gradually brought under the keeping of the Natural History Museum.

The South Kensington institution says it has been keen to facilitate the repatriation process, and has tried to balance the contrasting positions of the scientists, who would like to continue to retain the materials indefinitely for future study, and the aboriginal community, who want an immediate surrender of the collection.

The museum's independent Human Remains Advisory Panel recommended in November the compromise position of a three-month period of investigation followed by repatriation.

But the TAC has gone to court to try to stop this, and an initial hearing has permitted the museum's researchers to work on the specimens only on the basis that they do not use invasive techniques, such as DNA analysis.

Distinct peoples

The case is a clash of cultures, and mirrors events in the US where institutions and native Indian groups have also argued over ownership, access and research-importance of skeletal remains, some of them thousands of years old.

Scientists in the UK say the Tasmanian remains are important because they represent a population that was quite distinct from those on mainland Australia.

Tasmanian populations appear to have been isolated from mainland aboriginal Australians for 10,000 years until the arrival of Europeans in the 19th Century.

According to the TAC, there were around 8,000 Aboriginals in Tasmania when the British settled the island in 1802, but by 1850 there were just 47 left, after thousands were killed in massacres and or by disease brought in by the colonists.

An "unhealthy" interest in their remains led to a number of grave robberies taking place and to some remains coming lawfully into the possession of the museum from various collections over 100 years ago, said Geoffrey Robertson QC, speaking on behalf of the TAC.




SEE ALSO
Aboriginal remains tests halted
12 Feb 07 |  London
Bone return consultation launched
28 Jul 04 |  Science/Nature



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