The return of aboriginal remains is a debate that has been ongoing for some time. The government has commissioned a legal report, due to be completed next month, that is expected to be sympathetic to the issue. Many scientists are very upset at the idea that museums may have to return any of these remains however.
The Age (Melbourne) 
Science versus sanctity
May 26 2003
Britain is considering whether to return ancient Aboriginal remains to Australia, and UK scientists are up in arms. Peter Fray reports.
Playing the reluctant scientist, Chris Stringer would have you believe he was “pushed”. But the reality is, he jumped, feet first, into one of the hottest scientific and cultural debates on the planet: who owns ancient remains? Is it the world’s museums or the descendants of traditional societies?
Stringer, an authority on human origins and noted for his work on the “out of Africa” theory of evolution, jumped in because he believes science is about to be “done over”. The collection he works with – 20,000 specimens stored in London’s Natural History Museum – is, he fears, about to be broken up.
Next month, the British Government will receive a long-awaited report from legal academic, Norman Palmer, into the repatriation of human remains held in Britain – remains that were often removed from its former colonies, including Australia. Indications are that the report will support returning remains to museums in the country of origin or, more contentiously, to indigenous communities.
The Blair Government is on record as being sympathetic to repatriation: this is partly in response to Australian pressure.
What Stringer and others such as Cambridge University’s Robert Foley fear is that once the skulls, leg bones, hair samples and teeth are gone (including about 450 Australian specimens), they will be lost to science because they will be either destroyed, buried or locked away by traditional communities.
Stringer says Australian Aborigines are a highly important element of the story of humans.
“It seems to me there is a danger that the whole continent of Australia will be out of bounds for research into the origins of those people.
“I want to make sure that science is a valid reason for retaining this material and it’s not written off as a worthless endeavour, irrelevant, old-fashioned, racist – all the things I’ve heard said about the kind of things we do.”
Skulls tell stories, but what is actually heard depends on who’s listening. In the bowels of the Natural History Museum, Stringer, the head of the museum’s human origins program, is holding a replica of the Cohuna skull. It is part of a series of 8000 to 12,000-year-old fossilised bones found around Kow Swamp in northern Victoria. For the professor, the skull has become something of a totem.
Australian museums handed back their Kow Swamp remains to the traditional owners around Echuca in the early 1990s.
Stringer believes that existing Aborigines would have had a “tenuous” link with the original Kow Swampites.
“It would be very difficult for any one group to establish a link that far back,” he says. “We are talking about the deep past.”
When the remains were returned, they were destroyed by the Aboriginal descendants, which Stringer says was a great loss to science and humanity generally.
“It was wrong to give any living group a unique claim on material like Kow Swamp.”
Since then, he says, key collections at the Museum of South Australia and at Sydney University, have been put out of bounds to scientific inquiry. Instead, Australian researchers into evolution must now travel to London to pursue their interests.
For Aborigines, of course, the skull tells a different story. Rodney Dillon, the Tasmanian ATSIC commissioner and long-time campaigner on repatriation, is angered by Stringer’s comments and has called on British scientists to “exhume the bodies of their ancestors, such as the notorious King Henry VIII”.
“An examination of his remains may unearth the ignorance of these present-day scientists,” Dillon says.
“I do not expect these scientists to understand our culture, but I do expect them to respect it.”
Despite such conflict, there have been several high-profile handovers of Aboriginal remains to traditional owners, often via Australian museums.
While some of the material is being buried, other remains will be held in keeping places. Scientists will be able to apply to the traditional descendants for permission to study them. Stringer, too, is not totally opposed to repatriation, especially of known and named individuals.
“My view is that we should open up discussion on the future of this material and, where there are clear links to living people, we should consider repatriation. If the decision is made to repatriate, then I guess it will be up to the group it goes to (as to) what its fate will be.
“But, at least, I would hope they would consider allowing study of that material before it disappears if there are important issues surrounding the material which could be of value scientifically.”
This is where the debate becomes tricky. Bones were traditionally used by palaeontologists for comparative studies – measuring, say, African versus Australian bones. But new technologies have opened the possibility that bones may one day provide answers to pressing medical problems.
By extracting DNA from ancient specimens – unheard of a decade ago – it might be possible to nail down the genetic factors in diabetes, hypertension or malaria.
The bones of ancestors may hold secrets to assist living Aboriginal people. Stringer hopes that a sample of repatriated material would be retained for future DNA analysis.
If the Palmer committee favours repatriation, its first act will be to recommend changing the legislative framework that stops the Natural History Museum from handing back any material. Until recently, the British Museum Act 1963 has been used to rebuff unwanted intruders on what’s called the National Collection. (A similar legislative barrier is used to prevent the handing back of the Elgin marbles.) But, in recent years, and after the museum’s human remains collection was finally catalogued, there has been something of a thaw in relations.
“There is a greater openness,” says Stringer. “We’ve had Aboriginal groups coming, looking at our archives.”
Understandably, the black groups bring with them considerable emotional and spiritual ammunition, which, if anything, is enhanced by closer examinations of some specimens.
Among the museum’s collection are the skulls and leg bones of two Aboriginal men killed by whites around 1900 in the Northern Territory’s infamous Victoria River massacre.
“One would not condone now how material was collected,” Stringer says.
“They were stolen or permission was not granted, or people visited the cave and no one was there, so they took the material. (But) it then becomes part of a large natural history collection that people from all around the world come to study.
“So we have a responsibility to see that collection is available for that kind of study and the worry is that, through repatriation, a whole continent might disappear from any future study of human evolution.”
Or, at the very least, from the Natural History Museum in London.