Advertisement
Inscriptions on skull S 2548. The Polish explorer Jan Czekanowski participated in the "German Central Africa Expedition" of the Duke Adolf Friedrich to Mecklenburg in the years 1907-1908, which led into the territory of the former colony German East Africa. (Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte)

About a thousand human skulls were collected from the colony known as German East Africa the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After World War II, the massive trove of craniums somehow found its way into the medical museum of a Berlin hospital.

Almost none of the documentation about the skulls remains, other than some writing right on the bones themselves. But now German antiquities authorities are undertaking an ambitious investigation into the skulls –especially where they came from, and how they ended up in European hands.

The “menschliche Uberreste” (human remains) will be scrutinized by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the organization recently announced.

“If we find a wrong context, the skull cannot enter the scientific discourse,” said Bernhard Heeb, the project director for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, in a recent statement. “Especially in Africa, some reports of executions by colonialists are reported: this would be a clear injustice context.”

Inscriptions on skull S 2559. The Polish explorer Jan Czekanowski participated in the "German Central Africa Expedition" of the Duke Adolf Friedrich to Mecklenburg in the years 1907-1908, which led into the territory of the former colony German East Africa. (Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte)

The skulls come from the colonies of German East Africa, established by the ambitious new nation of Germany in the 1870s, and which was formally disbanded by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I in 1919. The modern-day countries of Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Mozambique are now in the formerly German-controlled territory.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation assumed what has come to be known as the “Luschan Collection” from the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the city’s Charite Hospital in 2011.

The overall collection includes other pieces of bone, skin and other mortal remains totaling about 8,000 pieces, according to the Foundation.

The skulls were collected by anthropologist Felix von Luschan during the German colonial era and sent back to Europe for research. The anthropologist was an Austrian doctor who was closely affiliated with the University of Vienna and the University of Berlin, and who at one point was a member of the German Society for Racial Hygiene.

After von Luschan's death in 1924, the skulls were given to the Kaiser Wilhelm Anthropological Institute in Berlin. After World War II, they were moved to the museum at the hospital, where they remained until 2011.

The last six years were spent cleaning and preserving the specimens, the Foundation explained. Heeb said they arranged broken pieces into whole bones, removed dirt and mold, and otherwise made the skulls easier to interpret and track. The scientists have started a research database and done preliminary searches at “foreign archives,” they added.

The S-Collection is now housed in an exterior depot of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. After being taken over by the Charite in 2011, the skulls were first elaborately cleaned, conserved and then recorded with all available information. Today, they are stored in acid-free archive boxes. (Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte)

Heeb added in his recent interview that many skulls are directly labeled. Also, a document trail exists outside Germany, including Luschan records at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The Berlin museum authorities said they were trying to untangle a historical web involving the scientific and international community woven over more than a century.

“Because collection activity has often been embedded in a colonial infrastructure, files of economic, military or ecclesiastical institutions are also of interest,” they add. “Complementary (non-invasive) anthropological investigations on the objects themselves can also provide important insights into the origin and acquisition.

“The decision of restitution depends on the research results,” the organization added.

The skulls in the collection are not believed to have come from contexts entailing "injustice" against native Africans, added Heeb.

If proven to have been collected through legitimate means more than a century ago, the craniums could be used for further science, Heeb added. For instance, paleogenetics could show the prevalence of diseases such as malaria - as well as resistance to it. Isotope analysis could also show where the people had lived and moved during their lives.

"However, such investigations can only be made if we are perfectly certain that these are justifiable from a moral-ethical point of view," said Heeb.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Advertisement
Advertisement