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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 23:29 GMT 00:29 UK
Aboriginal remains fight resolved
Natural History Museum   Image: PA
The museum has many thousands on human items in its collection
London's Natural History Museum has struck a deal with Australian aboriginal leaders over the remains of 17 indigenous Tasmanians it holds.

The museum had agreed to return the remains to Tasmania, but not until tests were carried out on the bones.

But Tasmanian aborigines viewed the tests as a desecration of their beliefs and took their case to the High Court.

Under the settlement, four DNA samples from the 19th Century specimens will be preserved in Tasmania.

The remains - including teeth, skulls and other bones removed from the island - will be turned over to a delegation from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in a private ceremony at the museum on Friday.

The agreement means that scientists are not able to complete all the tests they had originally planned. But a Natural History Museum (NHM) spokesperson said the investigations were "conducted to a high level".

She said museum researchers had extracted as much information as they could under limits on testing imposed in the High Court.

Remains repatriated

"The decision by the museum's trustees in November last year represented a willingness to move on from past practices," said Richard Lane, the NHM director of science.

"We're very pleased that we've been able to persuade them to preserve the DNA. We're actually quite enthusiastic that we've come to a constructive agreement. Both parties have travelled a long way," he told BBC news.

Although the museum agreed to return the remains last year, it had maintained the right to continue testing them - taking casts and photographs and subjecting the specimens to CT scans and measurements.

But TAC contested this part of the decision and initiated legal proceedings. In February 2007, an injunction was issued preventing the museum from studying the remains any further. This was subsequently lifted after the museum said it would limit its tests.

Researchers would no longer use "invasive" techniques such as DNA extraction or isotope analysis, the museum agreed. These procedures might have yielded insight into the Aborigines' genetic make-up, their diet and aspects of their culture.

Under the agreement now reached, DNA samples from four of the remains will be preserved in Tasmania under the joint control of the NHM and the TAC. These samples were extracted from the remains before the decision was taken to return them.

"We have to work with the TAC for a framework that allows scientists to have access [to the DNA samples]. We have no preconceptions about how that is going to work," Professor Lane said.

Colonial history

TAC representative Greg Brown told BBC News: "Now we have some power and say over what happens. Nothing can happen to the DNA samples unless it has the joint approval of the parties.

"There are a lot of sensitivities over the use of DNA by our people and we want to have control over what happens with that." He could not comment on what types of research the TAC might find offensive, but said decisions would be made in consultation with the whole community.

Mr Brown added that aboriginal leaders believed the samples should eventually be buried.

The TAC objects to testing because it desecrates the beliefs of its community. The dead are said to be "souls in torment" until properly buried, according to aboriginal custom.

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.

Scientists in the UK say the Tasmanian remains could shed light on human evolution, and particularly on the colonisation of 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.

Aborigines' court fight delayed
22 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature
Aboriginal remains tests halted
12 Feb 07 |  London
Bone return consultation launched
28 Jul 04 |  Science/Nature

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