Germany Returns Colonial-Era Skulls to Namibia

One of 20 skulls that will be handed over to a Namibian delegation on Friday.


BERLIN—The skulls of 20 Namibians killed in brutal wars with German colonists a century ago will be returned to Namibian government officials here on Friday. The skulls have been part of the anatomy collection at the Charité University Hospital here and the Berlin Medical Historical Museum for more than a century. Namibian leaders asked in 2008 that they be returned. "We acknowledge that German science carries a burden of guilt from that time," museum director Thomas Schnalke said at a press conference on Monday. "We accept that and would like to ask for forgiveness."

In a project launched last year, researchers have been working to identify where the thousands of skulls in the hospital's collections came from and which ones should be repatriated. ScienceInsider spoke with Charité anatomist Andreas Winkelmann, one of the project's leaders.

Q: How did the project get started?

A.M.: There were restitution requests from Namibia as well as from Australia and New Zealand. There was also a growing awareness on our side that we had anthropological collections that had a dark past. I am an anatomist but by chance am also responsible for the collections of our institute. The co-leader of the project, Professor [Thomas] Schnalke, is director of the museum. We found that the catalogs and documentation we had were not sufficient to say whether certain skulls needed to be returned. So we started a project to analyze where the remains had come from. The DFG [German funding agency] gave us funding for 2 years. We hired three scientists, a biological anthropologist, an historian, and a cultural anthropologist.

Q: What techniques do you use to identify a skull?

A.M.: We are looking at it in an interdisciplinary way, looking for publications from the time and trying to match them with particular specimen numbers. The documentation we have at Charité is far from complete. Collections had to move during the [Second World] War, then there was the German division and reunification. Things got lost. Also, researchers at the time did not have an interest in who these individuals were, but in ethnic groups, what they would call races.

We do look at the skulls, which is why we needed a bone expert, the anthropologist. But it is important to emphasize that we are not redoing the kind of classification that the scientists at the time were attempting. The concept of race has not held up scientifically. There is no good way of distinguishing groups based on skull characteristics.

But there are inscriptions on the skulls. There may be labels or numbers referring to catalogs or publications. And we can say something about the sex of the person, the age of death, and we sometimes can find traces of diseases. In the case of the skulls from Namibia, we can see traces of scurvy. We know that most of these skulls come from a prison camp on Shark Island, where scurvy was present and conditions were horrible. We can't tell if someone starved to death, but scurvy produces small bleeding in the bone, which show up as changes in the bone surface. It also causes loss of teeth, which you can see in the jaw.

There is only one aspect [in this project] where you can ascribe someone to an ethnic group based on skull characteristics. A Namibian ethnic group, the Herero, had a cultural practice of filing the upper incisors to produce a delta-shape hole in the middle and would knock out lower incisors. It was a mark of identity. It would confirm you were Herero.

Q: Do you use DNA analysis?

A.M.: It is, of course, possible, but it is expensive and is an invasive procedure [because a fragment of bone is destroyed to obtain the DNA]. We weren't sure we should do invasive procedures, so we didn't. Also, if you do not have direct descendants, it doesn't add very much to the conclusions. There are methods where you can say something about the geographical area a specimen might have come from, but they are not very precise.

Q: Are these all the Namibian skulls that Charité has? Or is this just the start?

A.M.: We assume there will be more skulls from Namibia, but we are still investigating. It has become clear this week that the Namibian delegation wants to be very sure that the skulls they repatriate are from Namibia. I expect we might find as many as a dozen more.

The Charité has roughly 7000 skulls in its collection, though they do not all come from the colonial period. That includes prehistoric skulls and some from Europe.

Q: How many of those will you be able to identify?

A.M.: We are in the middle of our 2-year project, and that is part of what we want to find out. We also want to find out more about the scientific historical context. So far we have concentrated on relating artifacts to cases and publications. We have not yet looked at who was involved in the collecting and why they did what they did.

Q: What sorts of papers were published on the skulls?

A.M.: One example is a study of facial muscles—Rassenanthropologische Untersuchung der Gesichtsmuskulatur [Racial Anthropological Examination of Facial Muscles]. The researchers would want to find that the facial muscles of Africans were less differentiated than those of Europeans. But they didn't actually include any European examples. When you read it, you have to kind of conclude they found whatever they were looking for.

Q: You have also been involved in documenting the history of anatomy during the Nazi period. Is this project related to that work?

A.M.: I am interested in the history of my specialty, which has led to looking into the Nazi time as well as other periods. However, we do not see a direct link between this collection and the history of racial hygiene in Berlin. The skulls were probably used for research into the 1920s, but there is no evidence that they were used later.