Germany to return 18 Aborigine skulls to Australia

By Patrick McGroarty
Berlin, Germany (AP) 11-08

A German medical museum will return the skulls of 18 Australian Aborigines that were taken from the continent more than a century ago.

The skulls – part of a sprawling and poorly documented anthropological collection – have been at the Medical History Museum at Berlin’s Charite hospital and medical school.

The collection is among a dozen in Germany and many more in Europe where Australian diplomats have asked curators to repatriate Aboriginal remains. Yet Charite is the first German institution to commit to repatriation and talks with the caretakers of 11 other collections are ongoing, according to Ian Kemish, Australia’s ambassador to Germany.

Similar efforts in Britain and Sweden have already yielded the return of Aboriginal remains.

In February, Australia’s government apologized to indigenous Australians for the injustices they suffered for decades due to official policies.

No date for the handover from Charite has been set yet. Thomas Schnalke, director of the medical museum, said he will happily return the skulls to Aboriginal leaders after joint research to verify them. Labels on the skulls say they came from northwestern Australia in the 1890s.

The history of Charite’s 10,000-bone collection is nearly as murky as that of the skulls. The bones were gathered by German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, who bequeathed them to a state society after his death in 1902.

In the 1930s, the collection was confiscated by the Nazis. With the start of World War II, the bones languished in a warehouse for decades. The collection passed through the care of several Berlin museums before arriving at Charite in 2005.

The museum is also working to return nine skulls to Namibia, which believes they were taken from tribal fighters beheaded in uprisings against German colonial forces between 1904 and 1908.