Respecting the remains of human icons.

AuthorWambu, Onyekachi

The most visceral and emotional of the restitution issues and perhaps the most successful to date, are those that involve African human remains --skeletons, skulls, and other body parts.

These human remains ended up in European collections through a number of encounters involving warfare, Egyptian tomb raids, and are grisly reminders of 'scientific' racism and the creation of human zoos. This last such humiliating spectacle took place as recently as 1958, when people from Congo were put on display for a World Fair event in Brussels, Belgium.

From the display of mummified Eharaohs, to others preserved in boxes in basements, museums, universities and other cultural institutions, Western authorities find it increasingly difficult to justify these collections.

As a graphic and grim reminder of eras when Europeans owned and controlled African resources and people, the movement to return human remains and icons has gathered steam.

The most famous of the returned icons are those of the South African woman, Sarah Baartman, whose brain, genitals, and skeleton were preserved in a back room at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.

Baartman was taken to Europe as an anthropological curiosity in the early 19th century, and displayed under the name of the 'Hottentot Venus', for amusement and to satisfy freakish curiosity about Black bodies.

She died in 1815 at the age of 27, but was denied a burial. She was dissected by Georges Cuvier, acknowledged as the founder of modern palaeontology, who placed her genitalia and brains on display in the Musee de l'Homme, where they remained until 1976, despite widespread objections from Africans in Paris.

Nelson Mandela and the South African government would join these voices after the liberation of South Africa in 1994. Her remains were eventually repatriated to South Africa and buried with dignity in 2002, 192 years after Baartman had left for Europe.

Thousands of African skulls

Meanwhile, in 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Namibian people killed during the German colonial genocide more than 100 years ago. These skulls were used for research by 'racial anthropologists'.

Skulls from Germany s other African colonies, including modern-day Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda and Togo, were also used in the discredited 'research', and put together by determined collectors.

Tari Ngangura, an African commentator who has written about these collections, quotes Christian Kopp, project coordinator for the activist group Berlin...

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