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Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2006, 11:20 GMT
Museum returns aboriginal remains
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum has 19,950 human remains specimens
The Natural History Museum in London is to return the remains of 18 aboriginal people to the Australian government.

The remains include the skull of an aboriginal person thought to have been illegally exported to Britain in 1913.

The rest comprise the remains of 17 indigenous individuals from Tasmania, and will be returned after a three-month period of study by scientists.

Museum director Dr Michael Dixon said the move was "a commonsense one" but accepted there would be objections.

"We are a science-based organisation but we do not believe that the scientific value should trump all other claims; nor do we believe that the ethical, religious, and spiritual claims should necessarily trump the scientific value," he said.

Human variation

Australian Aborigines have long campaigned for the repatriation of human remains held in British museums and universities. They regard such collections as an affront to their customs and spiritual way of life.

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.

They will now be given, through the Australian government, to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), which has been in dispute over the matter for more than 20 years.

Despite their sometimes dubious original acquisition, the materials are of immense interest to modern-day scientists for what they can reveal about human variation and evolution.

It is understood that on their return, the specimens are likely to be cremated - and, as museum officials put it, "lost to science forever".

"They were collected at a time when the aboriginal population of Tasmania had not had substantial contact with Europeans, and therefore the value of these remains scientifically is that they give us a point in time for the development of aboriginal populations," said Professor Richard Lane, the NHM director of science.

"We know from these and other materials that the populations of aborigines on Tasmania are actually really quite different to mainland Australia."

DNA analysis

The move to repatriate certain materials held in UK collections follows several years of discussions which ended with legislative changes and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport issuing guidelines on how claims should be handled.

At the Natural History Museum, this has led to the creation of a special panel to assess the merits of each request.

Professor Georgina Mace, an ex-officio member of the panel, said the decision to allow three months of scientific tests on the Tasmanian remains before their repatriation represented a fair compromise - between the desire of the TAC to regain the materials and the wish of scientists to retain them for investigation.

"The museum doesn't exist just to hold objects in as comprehensive a way as possible; it's here to maintain those objects for the benefit of researchers generally," she said.

"Part of the compromise is that we will try to gain as much knowledge as possible but we are also very pleased to be able to return these items to the people who feel very strongly that they shouldn't be here."

The data collection process, to begin in January, will include imaging, measurements, and DNA and isotopic analysis.

Scientists say that by applying such techniques, they can use old bones to discern patterns of migration in human communities - who lived where, who mixed with whom and when - and even follow the spread of disease.

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

For example, different forms, or isotopes, of carbon and nitrogen atoms in teeth betray the diet of a person, with vegetarians displaying a very different isotopic signature to an individual who eats meat or fish.

The NHM holds the national collection of human remains, comprising 19,950 specimens (varying from a complete skeleton to a single finger bone). These represent a worldwide distribution of the human population and a timescale of 500,000 years. The majority of the collection (54%) is material from individuals from the UK.

But there are hundred of items which could - and almost certainly will - be subject to further claims for repatriation by indigenous groups in Australia, New Zealand and North America.




SEE ALSO
Bone return consultation launched
28 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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