Germany, Austria Repatriate Dozens of Human Skulls to Hawaii

Earlier this month, a Hawaiian delegation retrieved 58 sets of ancestral remains from five European museums

Covered in black cloth, a box containing human remains sits on a table during a repatriation ceremony in Berlin on February 11, 2022
The Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin houses some 5,500 skulls collected by Austrian anthropologist Felix von Luschan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On Friday, February 11, the German museum returned 32 skulls from the collection to a Hawaiian delegation. Photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Around 1880, German naturalist Otto Finsch stumbled onto an ancient burial ground in Waimānalo, near Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oʻahu. Eager to send the centuries-old skeletons back to Europe for scientific analysis—a common colonialist practice—Finsch took “almost everything in the way of usable skulls and just left broken ones, as well as perhaps a dozen without lower jaws,” according to his journal.

Last Friday, a group of Hawaiians stood on a stage in Berlin, some 7,500 miles from home, to conduct a somber ceremony in front of boxes draped in black cloth. It was a scene they’d repeated several times over the past week, as they traveled to four cities in Germany and one in Austria on a mission to retrieve 58 ancestral human remains, or iwi kūpuna, long held at scientific institutions. Twenty-three skulls removed from Waimānalo nearly 150 years ago numbered among the repatriated remains.

“We acknowledge the anguish experienced by our ancestors and take responsibility for their wellbeing, and thereby our own, by transporting them home for reburial,” said the delegation’s leader, Edward Halealoha Ayau, a Hawaiian lawyer and longtime repatriation advocate, in remarks made on Friday.

An investigation into the collection of Felix von Luschan, an Austrian anthropologist who led an aggressive campaign to amass human skulls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prompted the repatriation, which consisted of 32 skulls formerly housed at Berlin’s Museum of Prehistory and Early History. Per a statement, museum officials and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), a state agency that seeks to improve the wellbeing of Native Hawaiians, began discussing the ancestral remains’ return in late 2017.

Hawaiian lawyer Edward Halealoha Ayau led the delegation
Hawaiian lawyer Edward Halealoha Ayau led the delegation. © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn

“For us, it’s the first step, and maybe it’s the starting point hopefully for more repatriations,” says Bernhard Heeb, a German archaeologist who oversaw the Berlin museum’s investigation. “It also shows to each community that if they have a question [about our collections], and if they ask us, we will answer and in some cases we can also repatriate.”

Luschan accepted a position as the curator of the Africa and Oceania collections at the forerunner of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in 1885. His career coincided with Germany’s colonial period (approximately 1884 to 1920), when the newly reunified country violently occupied Tanzania, Namibia, Cameroon and other African lands, as well as part of New Guinea and several Pacific islands.

As Germany asserted its imperial might, Luschan and other researchers recruited collectors and colonial officers—military doctors, missionaries, geographers and naturalists, among others—to acquire human remains for scientific study. Through these proxies, Luschan collected specimens from all over the world, including places Germany never claimed as imperial property (like Hawaii). Over the next several decades, Luschan, who eventually established himself as the nation’s leading anthropologist, purchased and accepted donations of thousands of skulls for use in his research on physical variability across humans, which relied heavily on measurements of the body.

Some German collectors dug up remains from historic cemeteries without securing permission; others sent back the bones of locals killed by colonial forces. In Namibia, Germany perpetrated what some historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century, killing an estimated 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people between 1904 and 1907. Though he rejected aspects of the scientific racism and social Darwinism prominent in his day, Luschan’s unethical collecting practices nevertheless left a material legacy that modern anthropologists are still trying to reckon with.

The Hawaiian delegation during the February 11, 2022, repatriation ceremony in Berlin
The Hawaiian delegation during the February 11, 2022, repatriation ceremony in Berlin © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn

Shortly before his death in 1924 at age 69, Luschan arranged the sale of his personal teaching collection to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it remains to this day. But the official collection he amassed stayed in Berlin. The Museum of Prehistory and Early History assumed responsibility for the cache of almost 5,500 skulls in 2011, after the Charité university hospital, which had housed Luschan’s collection as part of its Museum of Medical History, concluded that it could no longer adequately care for the remains.

In 2017, Heeb began a two-year investigation into more than 1,000 ancestral skulls acquired by Luschan from the former colony of German East Africa, which encompassed modern-day Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. (According to Heeb, the results of that research have been shared with the relevant embassies, but so far, none have filed restitution claims.) As the anthropologist explained in a 2017 statement, the research project was designed as a “pilot ... for subsequent investigations of the entire collection.”

At the end of 2017, the OHA contacted Heeb’s museum, triggering a separate investigation into possible Hawaiian skulls in the Luschan collection. Though primary documents like inventory books related to the remains had been destroyed during World War II, inscriptions on the skulls themselves remained. Through these ink markings, Heeb identified several collected by Finsch, who traveled across the South Seas between 1879 and 1882 and was instrumental in Germany’s plans to colonize the region.

Finsch’s diary, held at the Weltmuseum Wien in Vienna, describes in detail how he found eroded graves at a seemingly deserted beachside cemetery in Waimānalo. Twenty-three of the 32 skulls returned during the Berlin ceremony are thought to have come from this site, which dates to between roughly 600 and 1200 C.E. It’s unclear exactly what research the remains were used for; soon after their arrival in Berlin in the 19th century, the skulls were relegated to storage.

The Hawaiian delegation at the Übersee-Museum Bremen repatriation ceremony
The Hawaiian delegation at the Übersee-Museum Bremen repatriation ceremony Übersee-Museum Bremen

“There are some letters from Finsch to Luschan written some years later in which he wanted to have money for the skulls, and Luschan told him in another letter that he doesn’t know where the skulls are,” Heeb says.

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s state museums, acknowledges that many collections with colonial contexts, especially those containing human remains, “did a lot of damage to former communities.”

“[W]e have to face this history,” he says, adding that a big part of that mission is conducting provenance research to “gather all the necessary information to be able to give back to the right communities.” But repatriation also requires participation from descendant communities. This particular case was made simpler because the Hawaiian delegation had very clear ideas and very clear legal precedents to act on, Parzinger says.

Though many European museums have only recently become more receptive to repatriation and proactive about provenance research, Indigenous people like Ayau have been leading the charge for decades. Ayau was once head of the Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei (translated as the Group Caring for the Ancestors of Hawai‘i), which retrieved and reburied over 6,000 remains and items from museums around the world, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, between 1990 and 2015. Now, he’s a volunteer with the OHA.

Hawaiian delegation members (left to right) Halealoha Ayau, Mana Caceres and Kalehua Caceres
Hawaiian delegation members (left to right) Halealoha Ayau, Mana Caceres and Kalehua Caceres © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn

On Tuesday, February 8, the Hawaiian delegation made its first appearance at the Übersee-Museum in Bremen, which returned eight iwi kūpuna. (The final repatriation of the trip took place on February 14, when the Natural History Museum Vienna returned two skulls.) During a press conference after the Bremen ceremony, Ayau emphasized that consent is the central issue when considering the ethics of colonial collectors. “If they went to someone and they said, ‘Can I take your grandma’s head? I need to do these studies,’ and if that family said yes, then we wouldn’t be here,” Ayau said. “But no Hawaiian family ever said yes. Because they were never asked. So that’s the real issue. It isn’t what science could have done back then, it’s whether they had consent.”

In Germany, funding for and interest in provenance research has increased in recent years, not only for human remains, but for cultural artifacts, too. The German Lost Art Foundation, which was established in 1994 to investigate cultural assets stolen from Jewish families during the Nazi era, has since expanded to cover colonial loot. The foundation funded the investigation into the iwi kūpuna at the Übersee-Museum, though gaps in the archival record made it difficult to trace the exact origins of the remains.

“For ethical reasons, there is no longer any justification for continuing to keep the human remains in our collection. As a general rule, we would never entertain such sensitive purchases of unknown provenance now,” said Wiebke Ahrndt, director of the Übersee-Museum, during the press conference. “We bear the responsibility for the mistakes of our predecessors. Our task is to play our part in righting the wrongs of the past.”