Torres Strait islanders reclaim their ancestral bones

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News


Representatives of the Torres Strait islanders collected bones of their ancestors from the Natural History Museum in London.

The development is the latest step in a long campaign by the islanders to have the human remains returned to them so they can be properly buried and - in their view, allow the spirits of their ancestors to rest in peace.

But critics say that the handover of the bones will set back scientific research and has been done for the sake of political correctness.

The islanders have collected 19 skeletal remains of indigenous people that have been identified as taken from the Torres Strait Islands in the 19th Century. The islands lie roughly halfway between Papua New Guinea and the northern coast of Australia.

A further 125 remains thought to have come from the islands are to be held in trust on behalf and under the control of the islanders at the Natural History Museum until their origin can be firmly established.

At an hour-long private ceremony, eight representatives from the islands carried out a ritual which they told me involved communicating with their long dead ancestors.

Ned David, who speaks for the islanders, said that in what he described as a a deeply moving ceremony, the delegates told their long-dead ancestors that they were "going home" and that soon their souls would be at rest.

"Obviously there's a lot of joy that we are taking our people home, but there's a tinge of sadness that they've been away so long."

The Torres Straits are home to a hundred islands between the northern coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea. The islanders have fought a long battle to have the bones of their ancestors returned home.

Souls to rest

Early explorers and missionaries collected the bones of the islanders as curios. Many of them found their way to London's Natural History Museum. They believe that until the bones are buried - the souls of their forefathers will not be able to rest.

In March, museum officials agreed to return the remains of the Torres Strait Islanders but asked if they could continue to have access to the bones for research purposes.

Dr Richard Lane, former scientific director of the Natural History Museum and an architect of the agreement said that the islanders began warming to the idea of allowing the bones to be used for research as they learnt more about the work of the museum staff.

"When we got talking in the pub, the islanders started asking us 'what is this DNA business and how can we use it to learn more about our history?'"

The Natural History Museum has nearly 20,000 human remains, some of which scientists analyse to learn more about how humans evolved and migrated across the world. The vast majority though are not used for research and kept in storage.

'Colonial guilt'

The Royal Albert Museum in Exeter was the first British scientific institute to return human remains to New Zealand, North America and Australia in 1996. But it is only recently that the pace of repatriation of remains has gathered momentum, with six British museums returning bones to native people since 2008. Museums across the world are doing the same.

Dr Tiffany Jenkins, of the Institute of Ideas, believes that museums are acting out of a sense of post-colonial guilt: "This is meant to make reparations for all sorts of past wrongs," she told BBC News.

"But do giving human remains back really do that and do they not distract us from the very real material problems faced by the islanders?"

Dr Jenkins also argues that religion and religious beliefs should not "trump" the research that could be done on these remains.

"(The research) could tell us all sorts of things about past people which is something that belongs to everybody: you, me and the Torres Straits people."

Dr Ian Owens, the Natural History Museum's current scientific director said that the choice between good science and taking heed of people's religious beliefs was a false dichotomy. He believes that scientists will be able to continue doing research and will be able to do so with the consent and collaboration of the Islanders.

"I think there is the potential to do better science and the only way of doing that is to come to these kinds of agreements with the islanders.

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