Returning human remains: collaboration between researchers and indigenous communities



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The skeletal remains of 138 people are to be returned to their native land, the Torres Strait Islands, by the London Natural History Museum (LNHM).

The bones were originally taken by explorers and missionaries as curiosities, and for the last 100 years have resided in the LNHM.

They skeletons are not alone – the museum has an enormous collection of old bones. And through research it is possible to learn about human migration and the spread and development of diseases. Much of this research is relevant to problems facing us today.

However the Islanders have been campaigning for years for the return of the remains, believing that the bones of the dead cannot rest so far away from home.

This is a common problem – the clash between religious beliefs and science. But in this case, it seems dialogue has saved the day. Eighteen months of talks between the islanders, the museum and the Australian government have concluded with progress and understanding.

The museum will return the remains but it hopes still to have access not only to the remains but also potentially the living local population whose DNA could fill in more gaps in the puzzle.

The islanders are beginning to understand the potential good these studies could do. Mr Ned David, an Islander representing his community said

…….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.

Richard Lane director of science at the LNHM said:

We are pleased that through dialogue and mutual respect our team has been able to work closely with the TSI community, demonstrating for the first time in the UK a new way of approaching repatriation claims in what has previously been a hugely polarised debate.

In addition there will be a placement at the LNHM for a Torres Strait Islander to come and learn more about the potential of studying the remains of indigenous people and the benefits it can bring to the islanders, and the rest of the world.

So, a victory for dialogue, it seems. Long may it continue!

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