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Hundreds of 'stolen' human skulls housed by UoA Museums and Special Collections

Once used for racist pseudoscience, indigenous groups are seeking the repatriation of the remains

By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco

Marischal College, where the University's collection of human remains is housed.

Photo by Aedan Brennan

Please note that the following article may contain distressing themes, including descriptions of the acquisition and treatment of human remains.

‘Of a Wawisa from Nyasaland. It was taken from a tree on which this people placed their dead.’ (scat269, Nxxvii, UoA Skull Catalogue 2)

The above quotation documents the theft of an East African person’s cranium in 1909. The person’s remains, along with those of over 200 non-European people from around the world, are currently housed by the University’s Museums and Special Collections.

A ‘skull catalogue’ accessed via a Freedom of Information request and reviewed by The Gaudie confirmed that the University possesses at least 101 craniums, 97 skulls, and a number of other human remains taken from indigenous and non-European groups during the 19th and 20th centuries. About 100 remains of European origin are also held by the University. The remains are housed in the University’s Museum Collections Centre in Marischal College.

While other media outlets reported on the University's possession of nine human skulls in November 2021, The Gaudie is the first to uncover the collection’s full extent.

Origins of the Collection:

According to UoA Head of Museums and Special Collections Neil Curtis, many of the human remains in the University collection were acquired for a comparative anatomy collection used to teach racist pseudoscience.

Speaking to The Gaudie, Curtis said: 'The collection was formed in the late 19th and 20th centuries to demonstrate the differences between different racial types. In other words, to teach race. As it is based on a concept that is untrue and that we completely reject, the collection has therefore not been used for teaching for decades.’

To this point, the University collection contains human remains from a number of ethnic groups; including Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, East and West Africans, and Pacific Islanders.

According to the ‘skull catalogue,’ a number of the human remains were ‘taken’ from graveyards, battlefields, hospitals, and prisons. In many cases, the method of acquisition is not recorded. The remains were then brought to the UK and either donated or sold to the University. As Curtis admits, 'the ways in which some of the remains of people were acquired is atrocious.’

Requests for repatriation of the remains:

While there is no specific legislation compelling the return of ancestral remains to indigenous groups, repatriation efforts by Scottish museums have increased during the 21st century. The University returned Maori ancestral remains to a museum in New Zealand in 2007.

In late 2019, the University was approached about the return of Tasmanian ancestral remains by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. In a letter, representatives of the Centre explained: ‘Human remains are to Aboriginal people a vital spiritual and cultural link with our past. The violent disruption of that past makes contemporary Aborigines even more conscious of our responsibilities to both past and future generations…'

'Not a single one of these remains was taken with the consent of Aboriginal people. The collections of remains of our people held in institutions are tainted with illegality and the worst forms of abuse of the right to life.’

The letter provided further context to the origins of the remains, the skull of an Aboriginal man who was murdered in the early 19th century.

The letter states: ‘There can be no doubt that this skull was removed from the man shot at the Shannon River in order to service (the) trade in Aboriginal body parts. The decapitation was most likely performed by one of the killers, stockkeepers, property owners or lessees involved in or associated with the man’s murder.’

A paper before the University Court in early 2020 described the University’s purchase of the remains as follows: ‘… the acquisition records are very limited, recording only that this human skull was acquired as part of the collection of William MacGillivray, Regius Professor of Natural History in Marischal College. After his death in 1852, the collection was purchased by the University.’

A lengthy biographical entry about MacGillivray on the University’s website briefly mentions his role in the acquisition of human remains, but focuses primarily on his work as a ‘much-loved lecturer’ and naturalist.

The University Court voted to repatriate the man’s remains in the spring of 2020. However, due to travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the official transfer has yet to occur. A group of Tasmanian Aboriginal representatives will travel to Aberdeen before returning to Australia with the man’s remains. The University will not be responsible for transportation costs.

In 2022, the University began negotiations with a Native American tribe seeking the return of several human skulls stolen by US naturalist John Audubon and given to MacGillivray in 1838.

Why this matters:

For Curtis, this work is vital to the University’s mission. He told The Gaudie: 'As we are dedicated to the pursuit of truth, it is essential that we are open about what we know about the collection and its history, and that we work with related communities to address that legacy.’

To this end, the University has made its collections, including information about the human remains, accessible to the public via an online database.

However, Curtis cautioned that the process of assessing the University’s collection is one that must be handled with sensitivity and care.

Indeed, this process is one which is deeply personal for indigenous groups around the world. For Aboriginal people, the repatriation of ancestral remains is seen in deeply spiritual terms.

‘The spirits of our dead await the return to the country of their body,’ the Centre's letter stated. ‘Until then the spirit remains in a stage of torment, lost from the human individual of which it was always a part.'


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