A project to investigate the origins of human skulls taken from the former colony of German East Africa has concluded that nearly all are the remains of people from the same colonized region.
Of the 1,135 human remains examined, 904 skulls could be assigned to areas in present-day Rwanda, 202 to Tanzania and 22 to Kenya.
After analyzing the skulls using DNA, the scientists also found living relatives of three of the people whose remains sat in Berlin’s Charite hospital archives for decades from the turn of the 20th century.
The anthropological collection of about 7,700 skulls was taken over from the hospital by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) in 2011.
The provenance project that was launched in 2017, has seen the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin team up with scientists from Rwanda to investigate the skulls that were taken from the former colony.
The findings represent “a small miracle,” said Hermann Parzinger, the president of the SPK that manages the museum. The location of relatives is akin to finding “a needle in a haystack,” he told DW.
For eight of the skulls, the researchers gathered a lot of information that made the difficult search for living descendants much easier. To achieve this, they collaborated with Berlin Postkolonial — an association seeking to decolonize Berlin from its racist colonial past — as they compared the genetic data with DNA from saliva samples of possible descendants.
“Human remains refers to the bodily remains of murdered Africans, which were brought to Germany during the colonial era for racist, pseudo-scientific purposes of anthropological research,” explains Berlin Postkolonial of the origins of the remains on its website.
The provenance research is now available as a publication, “Human Remains from the Former German Colony of East Africa,” edited by Charles Mulinda Kabwete, a historian at the University of Rwanda, and Bernhard Heeb, the curator of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History with responsibility for the anthropological collection.
The work provides the basis for repatriation of the human remains to the countries of origin.
‘Not given the chance to bury their ancestors’
“The clear objective of provenance research on human remains is to restitute them to the countries concerned,” said Hermann Parzinger in a statement this week. “We are ready for immediate restitution and are now waiting for signals from the countries of origin,” he added.
This has long been the demand of campaigners seeking to decolonize, through repatriation, everything from looted artifacts like the Benin bronzes to human remains that made their way from German colonies to Berlin.
“The repatriation of human remains from people who were murdered and abducted during Germany’s colonial period cannot undo the crimes committed,” stated Jeannine Kantara, the co-founder of the Initiative Black People in Germany, in a 2022 report on human remains from colonial contexts titled “We want them back” — and initiated by Decolonizing Berlin, another association dedicated to addressing the city’s racist colonial legacy.
“However, they are an important step towards the historical reappraisal, acceptance of responsibility and reparations by today’s Federal Republic of Germany,” Kantara added.
“For many people that I know, it’s a terrible feeling that they have not been given the chance to bury their ancestors in a decent way,” Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a Tanzanian-born activist and co-founder of Berlin Postkolonial, told DW back in 2018 after the provenance project was launched.
While Berlin’s Charite university hospital handed back several Herero skulls to Namibia between 2011 and 2014, German museums ignored the dark remnants of colonial history that they had stored away in their archives for decades.
Origins reveal dark colonial past
Most of the remains originate from burial sites such as cemeteries or burial caves, and partly also from Indigenous execution sites, according to a statement by the SPK.
In very isolated cases, there is evidence of executions by German colonialists, either against so-called insurgents or plantation workers.
The fact that scientific research was carried out on the human remains was brought to life in the 2023 film, “Der vermessene Mensch” (“Measures of Men”), the first German feature film dealing with the issue.
In the movie, a fictional young German ethnologist embarks on a research trip to the German southwestern African colonies in current-day Namibia and begins collecting human skulls for his so-called “racial research.”
Back in Berlin, scientists are measuring skulls of German and African skeletons in a lecture hall of Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University, now Humboldt University. A pseudo-scientific, evolutionist racial theory is taught, based on the premise that the skull of a “Berlin worker” is larger than that of an African “bushman.” These comparisons are meant to say something about intelligence — a theory that prevailed during the colonial era and endured long after.
Christian Kopp, a board member of Berlin Postkolonial since 2007, said that reconciling Berlin’s colonial injustices will depend on repatriation of stolen human remains.
“To me, the presence of the ancestors abducted to Berlin during colonialism is the most unbearable part of this city’s colonial racist heritage,” he stated in the “We want them back” report. “The handling of the ancestors will be the real, definitive assessment of Berlin’s willingness to deal with its colonial past.”
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier