May 24, 2024


The descendants of the Aboriginal people of Australia’s island state of Tasmania are used to dealing with museums. Their ancestors’ bones are treated as a unique anthropological resource, as they belonged to a race isolated for 12,000 years from contact with other human groups. But by the middle of the 19th century, they had all perished, victims of disease and violence. The last Aboriginal woman insisted that her body be cremated, but instead her skeleton ended up in a museum. The grave of the last Aboriginal man was robbed on the evening of his burial and his head and hands were stolen. The perpetrator was almost certainly the Tasmanian surgeon-general, who later became the state premier.

Now the UK’s Natural History Museum is finally returning a small collection of bones to a Tasmanian Aboriginal group, which plans to cremate them. A number of anthropologists told Nature that this was the wrong decision. Weak-willed, said Robert Foley, of Cambridge University. "Who knows what kind of questions we could ask," said Daniel Lieberman, of Harvard University. "Bizarre," sniffed another researcher, who preferred to be anonymous.

However, a letter to Nature this month from an Australian doctor defends the move to repatriate the remains. "If only the Tasmanian Aborigines had been regarded with ethical consideration, they would not have been systematically exterminated. Science was not responsible for their deaths, of course, but we can derive lessons from this sad history. Perhaps sometimes we have to learn to put ethics and humanity above our scientific curiosity," comments Jason Coombes.