Germany returns record number of Indigenous ancestral remains to Australia

Promoting “healing, justice and reconciliation.” 
Yosola Olorunshola
Three repatriation ceremonies have taken place in Germany to return the remains of 53 Australian Indigenous ancestors. It is the largest group of ancestral remains to have been returned by Germany to date.

Their repatriation represents the culmination of collaborative efforts between Australian Indigenous community representatives, Australian and German authorities, and five German collecting institutions: the Martin Luther University, the Five Continents Museum, the University of Freiburg, the Linden Museum, and the State Ethnographic Collections.

“Returning ancestors to country helps promote healing, justice and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” said a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Communication and the Arts. 

“Where the relevant Indigenous communities are known, they are closely involved in the repatriation process. When ancestral remains cannot be identified to a specific community, it is the view of Australian Indigenous peoples that the ancestral remains should be returned to Australia to be cared for and brought closer to home.” 

One case highlights the steps taken to return the remains to their rightful owners. On 9 April, the Five Continents Museum in Munich handed over the remains of a Gimuy Walubara Yidindji ancestral king to representatives of the Yidindji people from Cairns in Queensland. The king’s remains were first taken by a team of explorers more than 130 years ago. 

“The provenance of the body has been almost completely retraced,” said the Bavarian culture ministry.

The king’s body was found by an exploratory expedition in an area of present-day Queensland, where members of the expedition are thought to have interrupted the king’s burial ceremony. They took the body to Sydney, in the hope of selling the remains to cover the cost of their expedition. 

These efforts failed, but the body was given to Max Buchner, the director of the Königlichen Ethnographischen Sammlung – the precursor of the Five Continents Museum – who was traveling across Australia. In 1889 he brought the body to the museum, where it was exhibited to the public. 

Thousands of ancestral remains and items experienced a similar fate. Held in collections overseas and within Australia, many were taken without consent and used for public exhibits, mutilated under the pretext of anatomical research and used to reinforce theories on race.

Bavaria’s minister for arts and sciences, Bernd Sibler, said the region’s museums now work “with openness and respect to the understanding of other cultures.” 

The ceremonies in Germany follow a series of significant decisions to repatriate ancestral remains, achieved in collaboration with Australia’s Department of Communication and the Arts. Last month, the Natural History Museum in London returned human remains from its collection at a ceremony attended by members of the Narungga people from South Australia.

In total, 1,573 Australian Indigenous ancestors have been repatriated over the past 30 years, including 1,265 from the UK – according to data from the Australian government. 

“Following the recent return of 37 ancestral remains from the Natural History Museum in London, we will continue to liaise with a number of institutions in the UK regarding future returns,” said a spokesperson for the department. 

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