Torres Strait Island community ancestral remains return begins

06 May 2011

London's Natural History Museum has returned 3 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Island (TSI) community  in the first step towards a new collaborative agreement.

This follows a landmark meeting with representatives from the TSI community and an announcement in March about the decision to return 138 ancestral remains and discuss their transfer, access and future care.

The decision followed 18 months of dialogue with the TSI community and the Australian government. It is the largest single return of remains to Australia.

The Museum and the TSI community are working together to agree how responsibility for the remains will be transferred and how they will be cared for and accessed for future study.

Ned David (left) and Seriako Stephen, (right), Torres Strait Islands Traditional Owners, Richard Lan

Ned David (left) and Seriako Stephen, (right), Torres Strait Islands Traditional Owners, and Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum (middle) with the 3 returned ancestral remains

Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, says, ‘We are very pleased with how this repatriation process is going. I believe we are establishing a new and much more collaborative approach. 

'We are challenging the current assumption that the needs of Indigenous or claimant groups and of science are incompatible and mutually exclusive. 

'Mostly they are not but it does require building a shared understanding through dialogue.’

Ned David, a Traditional Owner in the TSI, comments on behalf of the community, ‘The initial return of the 3 remains marks the goodwill and intent of the collaboration. 

'Since the initial decision was made in March, I have spoken with community members and traditional owners about what this means for us. 

'These initial discussions have provided some context around the decision and have also raised the requirement for further consultation with the Traditional Owners of the Torres Straits so that we can find a way forward to respect the past but look to the future.’

Torres Strait Islands

The Torres Strait Islands include 274 islands in between the northern coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea. About 6,000 Islanders live in the islands and over 40,000 on mainland Australia.

The majority of the TSI ancestral remains were removed from a cave on the island of Pulu, sacred to the Mabiuag Islanders, at the instigation of a missionary teacher. The Museum purchased them from a dealer in 1884, and in the same year received a donation from the Hon John Douglas (a former Government Resident in the Torres Strait).

Museum human remains collection

The Museum has approximately 20,000 human remains, collected since it was founded in 1881.

Specimens range from single teeth to complete skeletons, and they have come from a variety of sources such as archaeological digs or donations from medical institutions and explorers.

They are used by researchers worldwide to study a wide range of topics, from human evolution to disease.

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