Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Skulls a Reminder of Europe's Dark Colonial Past

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Skulls a Reminder of Europe's Dark Colonial Past

Article excerpt

This week, the German public broadcaster ARD obtained information regarding the existence of thousands of human skulls and other remains of African people in the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which presides over state museums in Berlin. According to Deutsche Welle, ARD identified about 1,000 skulls that originated from what is now Rwanda and about 60 from Tanzania. Researchers and state officials will now work toward the repatriation of the remains; they were claimed at a time when both countries were part of the larger German East Africa colony, which existed from 1885 until the end of World War I.

The existence of such a collection in European museums is both disturbing and not at all surprising. In the late 19th century, as various competing colonial powers carved up large swaths of Africa and held sway over the islands of the Pacific Ocean, early anthropologists and Western collectors made a hobby of hoarding the remains of indigenous peoples.

In an era of scientific racism, such artifacts - if they can be considered that - were in high demand. European museums staged "human zoos," where people from various indigenous communities in far-flung colonies would be put on display in invented habitats, like caged animals.

The bones and skulls and even embalmed heads of those from remote tribal cultures were objects of fascination and inquiry. A generation of eugenicist scientists developed theories of racial difference and superiority through the study of these objects. …

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