In the largest handover of human remains between sovereign governments, Germany have returned the remains of several Aboriginals to Australia. According to sources, the remains of 53 Aboriginal ancestors will be returned on April 2019.
The skulls and bones of the Aboriginals were previously removed by German researchers in the late 19th century until the 20th century. These were also displayed in museums in several countries.
Mitch Fifield, Australia’s Minister for Communications and the Arts, praised the move and welcomed the repatriations. He said that the handover will “contribute to healing and reconciliation” and thanked the “German state governments and the collecting institutions for their commitment to recognizing the significance of repatriation for all Australians.”
He added that the Australian government remains strong in its commitment to the “unconditional return” of the Aboriginal ancestors’ remains in overseas collections.
The Aboriginals have occupied Australia for about 50,000 years and are, in fact, considered as the first human inhabitants of the world’s smallest continent. But when settlers from Europe settled in Australia about two hundred years ago, the Aboriginals were displaced and thousands of them were killed.
Aboriginal population fell from about 750,000 in 1788 to 93,000 at the start of the 20th century. The Aboriginals also died from exposure to diseases brought by the European settlers and to which they didn’t have immunity. These diseases included tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox.
Their remains were extensively removed and then sent to various universities, museums, and private collectors both in Australia and overseas. These were then studied and displayed. The practice continued for more than 150 years, and it’s one that Australia and Germany are cooperating closely to prevent from happening again.
Unfortunately, some of the remains were subjected to so-called race research, which Nazis used to justify their belief in Aryan supremacy.
The remains were previously in the custody of various institutions. The State Ethnographic Collections returned the remains of 37 indigenous ancestors while the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg returned five ancestors.
The Yawuru indigenous group, which live in Western Australia, collected seven of the remains from the State Ethnographic Collections. The handover was made to Yawuru representatives at the Australian embassy in Berlin. The rest will be placed in the Australian government’s temporary care.
The Yidinji indigenous group, which hails from northern Queensland, also received the skeletal remains of its ancestral king. The handover was made from the Munich Five Continents Museum to one of the late king’s direct descendant.
The University of Freiburg and the Linden-Museum of Stuttgart also returned the Aboriginal ancestors’ remains to the Australian government. But the remains haven’t been returned to any of the indigenous groups since the government is still working on their identification, especially their communities of origin.
The repatriation of the remains will mark the end of the largest activity of its kind between Australia and Germany.
Aside from Australia’s Aboriginal ancestral remains, Germany also holds an extensive collection of African human remains. But as in the case of Australia, Germany has undertaken repatriations of these remains to their home countries.
On August 21, 2018, Germany repatriated the remains of indigenous Nama and Herero peoples to Namibia. A Namibian government delegation were on hand to receive the skulls during a church service in Berlin.
More than 100 years ago, tens of thousands of Nama and Herero people were murdered in a genocide in retaliation for an anticolonial uprising. Estimates put the number of Nama killed at 10,000 and Hereros at 100,000 in what historians now call the first genocide of the 20th century.
The genocide happened from 1904 to 1908. The bones of the murdered people were then sent to Germany for race research, as was the case with Australia’s Aboriginal ancestors.
The race research has since then been discredited.
German officials have also agreed to facilitate the return of artworks that were taken from Germany’s former colonies in Africa. They added that they will determine the remains and artworks that “were required in a way that legally or ethically would no longer be acceptable.”
Germany has previously stated that it was prepared to apologize in principle. But since genocides are a sensitive topic, its government is still in negotiations with the Namibian government about several matters. These included the manner of dealing with the genocide’s legacy and the form of apology.
Going back to the Aboriginals, they are the indigenous people of Australia and the proud keepers of one of the oldest continuous culture known to history. While their culture may seem alike to outsiders, there are actually different distinct communities. Each community has its own unique mixture of customs, language and lore.
Before the European settlement starting in the late 1780s, there were over 250 Aboriginals nations with each one featuring several clans. These nations passed on their traditions, customs and language through oral means, such as in songs and stories, as well as through dance and paintings. These indigenous peoples were also expert hunters and gatherers who lived in harmony with the land, and who lived semi-nomadic lives.