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Not everyone is happy with the restitution of aboriginal human remains

Although aboriginal groups have welcomed the return of human remains by Britain’s Natural History Museum [1], some scientists are arguing that the return of the remains represents a tragic loss to the museum. This loss is compounded by that fact that in accordance with their traditional beliefs, the aboriginal communities are planning to cremate the remains, thus destroying them forever.
As a counter to this though, it should be argued that not only was little attention paid to these particular items for most of the time that they were in the museum, but that more importantly, permission was never given in the first place by the aboriginal communities for the removal of these remains to the museum. It may be a loss to science, but this doesn’t just mean that scientists should be able to ignore the rules whenever they think that something is important to their personal area of study.

The Guardian [2]

Scientists mourn loss of Aboriginal remains to be sent back to Australia
· Change in law allows fragments to be returned
· Cremation expected in keeping with beliefs
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Saturday November 18, 2006
The Guardian

The Natural History Museum is to repatriate the remains of 17 Tasmanians and a skull from the Australian mainland to the country’s government, trustees announced yesterday.

The Australian government requested the return in November 2005 on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, which says it will cremate the material in keeping with Aboriginal beliefs.

The decision to return the historic fragments comes after an amendment to the Human Tissue Act last year that allows museums to return remains “which are reasonably believed to be under 1,000 years in age”. The move has dismayed scientists who say the remains are invaluable for understanding human origins and should not be destroyed.

The announcement came a day after an independent panel presented an ethics review and guidelines for future claims. “We acknowledge our decision may be questioned by community groups or by some scientists,” said the museum’s director, Michael Dixon, but said it believed the decision was common sense.

The remains date from the early 19th and early 20th centuries and include skulls donated by Oxford University Museum in 1946 and the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in the 1960s, including one named Christopher or Rodney given to Lady Franklin, the wife of an early governor of Tasmania. The skull from the Australian mainland is being returned after museum officials confirmed it was exported illegally in 1913.

The decision is the first in Britain to return human remains since the change in legislation. In March the British Museum returned two bundles of ashes to Australian Aborigines. The museum is considering a request for the return of all Australian remains, about 450 specimens. Against the wishes of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre scientists at the museum will first spend three months conducting intensive research on the remains.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the museum, said it was regrettable as the remains would also be lost to Tasmanians if they were cremated. Robert Foley, professor of human evolution at Cambridge University, said: “As a scientist I deeply regret that this invaluable material will be lost forever.”