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Field Museum to return Aboriginal Tasmanians’ skulls to descendants

Updated: June 24, 2014 1:22AM

A macabre lesson on the brutality of 19th century colonialism will be on full display Wednesday, when the Field Museum returns the skulls of three Aboriginal Tasmanians to their descendents.

During a solemn ceremony, a delegation from the Australian island will receive the skulls, which were likely stolen by grave robbers during the early 1800s and sold on a once-thriving European anatomy market.

“A lot of doctors, they wanted to know more about the human race. So they’d dissect the Aboriginal race to find out more,” said Dave Warrener, a member of the delegation who also is president of the Tasmanian Aborginal Center, based in Hobart, Tasmania.

Warrener then went into grim detail, describing how the body parts of slain, indigenous Tasmanians frequently wound up in Europe — and eventually in collections like the Field Museum’s.

The population of Aboriginal Tasmanians was once greater than 5,000, Warrener said. But then the British colonists waged a campaign of genocide.

One historic account from 1831 described the island’s coastline, where “the bones of the murdered Aborigines are strewed over the face of the earth bleaching in the sun,” according to the museum.

Anatomy traders, who also targeted ceremonial grave sites, gathered those remains and shipped them to Western markets, making a handsome profit.

“Lords and ladies wanted to have a Tasmanian skull on their mantelpiece,” said Helen Robbins, the museum’s repatriation director. She said the “racism and lack of understanding” of the time period can be awkward to talk about.

In some circles, human bones were seen as oddities and collectibles, she said. At least one catalog from the era sold human skulls for $50 a piece, she said.

The skulls that will be returned Wednesday came to the museum in the 1950s, when the English collector, Captain A.W.F. Fuller, sold his collection to the Field. After he died, his wife donated more items, according to the Field Museum’s website.

Warrener said the trip to Chicago brings roughly nine years of negotiations over the remains to a close. And he hopes to more Tasmanian artifacts in the museum’s collection will be returned, including some spears.

But before that happens, Warrener said the delegation will spend some alone time with the skulls.

“We’ll have time with these three craniums. We’ll do some very private, traditional ceremony. I expect it will be quite an emotional moment.”

Email: bslodysko@suntimes

Twitter: @BrianSlodysko

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