Science & Environment

Museum to return Torres Strait islanders' bones

Torres Strait Islands

London's Natural History Museum (NHM) will return the skeletal remains of 138 indigenous people taken from the Torres Strait Islands in the 19th Century.

Early explorers, missionaries, and others had collected the body parts for all manner of reasons, including as curios.

Repatriation follows a long campaign by indigenous leaders who regarded the removal as an affront to local customs.

The souls of the dead had not been able to rest, the islanders said.

"We are ecstatic; I can't commend the museum enough for what they've done," commented Ned David, a Torres Strait islander speaking on behalf of the community.

"Our belief, as part of our culture, is that we still have a strong connection with those who have passed away; and the view we take is that while our people are so far away from home, their spirits are not at rest and not at peace."

The trustees of the NHM have acceded to the islanders' request, but arriving at the decision has not been an easy one for the research institute.

Whatever the circumstances of their acquisition, the remains are still deemed an important scientific resource.

Population patterns

Richard Lane, the director of science at the Natural History Museum, said he hoped the decision would initiate a new collaborative approach to the issue of repatriation in which the needs of both sides could be satisfied.

"We need to ensure we have a much closer dialogue with the Torres Strait islanders in future," he told BBC News.

"What we're hoping is that in ongoing discussions we can show them the things you can learn from remains like this."

The museum has a huge collection of human specimens, some of them thousands of years old. And, by applying modern analytical techniques to the bones, it is possible for scientists to discern patterns of migration in ancient human communities - who lived where, who mixed with whom and when.

It is even possible to say something about how people lived and what sort of diseases they carried. Such information is relevant even to modern populations.

"The point is we're always developing new analytical techniques to examine remains," Dr Lane said.

"People often say: 'Well, you've had the remains for 100 years, surely you've learnt everything you're going to learn by now?' But 20 years ago we didn't have three-dimensional CT scanning, and research always throws up questions. That's why we need to maintain access."

Common ground

The repatriated remains will include a range of material - everything from a single jaw bone up to a complete skeleton. There are even "trophy skulls". All of the material is over 100 years old; some of it almost 200 years.

For about 19 of the 138 individuals, it is very clear they originated on one of the Torres Strait Islands. For the rest, the provenance is not so obvious but testing strongly suggests the remains came from one of the islands, from southern New Guinea, or from the north of Australia.

A key objective for the museum has been to try balance the compelling moral arguments in favour of return with the desire to retain the material for science.

The institution said that, after 18 months of discussion with the TSI community and the Australian Government, a compromise route had been found.

All will work together to agree how responsibility for the remains will be transferred and how they will be cared for and accessed for future study on their return.

"I would like to think we can grow this relationship with the Natural History Museum," said Mr David.

"Without making any commitments, what I can say is that in the process of dealing with repatriation I have learnt that there may well be developments in the scientific field that will assist all of us - perhaps, more so my people than anyone else."

To strengthen ties and build confidence, the London institution has offered a placement to a Torres Strait Islander to help it understand better the culture of indigenous peoples and to share with them the insights and benefits that come from the study of ancient remains.

This is the second and largest release of material by the NHM. It has a number of other requests that its trustees are considering. And this situation is faced by other UK museums and scientific research centres as well.

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