Restitution of Human Remains to Tasmania

On the 25th of July, the Charité handed over a skull from Tasmania to representatives of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. The skull had been part of the Anatomical Collection of Berlin University since the middle of the 19th century.

Tasmania is an island south of the Australian mainland which is nearly as large as Ireland and which until 1856 was officially referred to as Van Diemen's Land. According to uncertain estimates, the indigenous population of Tasmania amounted to approximately 4000 persons prior to European colonisation. It was a population that experienced a particularly cruel history in which the Aboriginal people suffered sustained hardship under the rule of the colonisers. After occasional 17th and 18th century visits from European voyagers, Tasmania was permanently settled by the British from 1803 onwards. This led to the systematic displacement of the Aboriginal population which subsequently in the course of the 1830s was all but exterminated during the so-called "Black War". The remaining 200 to 300 survivors were removed to a series of holding camps in which most of them died. A woman named Truganini, who died in 1876, has often been referred to as the "last Tasmanian" but other Aboriginal women did outlive her and descendants of these women went on to found the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in the 1970s.

The skull to be returned was brought to Berlin by the German sheep breeder, Adolphus Schayer. From 1831 to 1843 Schayer was employed by the Van Diemen's Land Company to supervise the company's sheep in northwest Tasmania. During his stay in Tasmania, Schayer collected plants and insects, some of which he sold to the Berlin Museum of Natural Science (Naturkundemuseum). Indeed, a species of grasshopper from Tasmania is still named after him. When returning to Germany, Schayer obviously also brought back a skull which he donated to the Anatomical Institute in Berlin. As no further recordings from this time have survived, the details by which Schayer acquired the skull and consequently handed it over to the Anatomical Institute remain unknown. Nevertheless, an inscription on the skull clearly links it to Schayer and also reads:"Nanny, native of Kangaroo Island". The inspection of the skull, which was part of our provenance analysis confirms that it belonged to a woman - or more precisely to girl of about 15 years - who likely died from a massive inflammation in the region of one ear which destroyed the local bones.

As there is more than one Kangaroo Island around Tasmania, the exact origin of the remains cannot be clarified. Nevertheless, the skull appears beyond doubt to stem from an indigenous woman from this region. For this reason, the Charité has decided to meet the wishes of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and enable the skull to be buried at home. This handover reiterates the Charité’s earlier commitment to the restitution of human remains from Australia that were previously acquired in the name of – often dubious – scientific research.

Click here for the Opens external link in current windowpress release of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.