Calls to criminalise German skull collectors

06 September 2018 | International

Local historian Festus Muundjua has urged the German government to criminalise the private possession of human remains by that country's citizens.

This follows the third repatriation of Namibian remains from Germany last Friday, which included a San girl's skeleton that was collected by colonialists between 1899 and 1900 from Grootfontein, as well as another San girl's skeleton and jawbone.

The skull of Nama woman, aged between 28 and 40, taken from Shark Island in 1905, was also among the repatriated remains, which were mainly of women.

Muundjua, who formed part of the delegation to Germany to collect the remains, said some German nationals revealed they had inherited skulls from their grandparents.

“There was a German man who travelled all the way from Germany to Namibia and he asked what he could do with the skull that he found as a boy in his parents' home.

“They never said what it was; he only thought it was just one of those souvenirs, like the kudu heads and so forth. And now that the universities and research institutions started returning them (the human remains), he understood what it was,” said Muundjua.

He added a few of the German research institutions bought skulls from the widow of an army general, who inherited the remains in a private collection that formed part of her late husband's estate.

“I think Germany must pass a law that prohibits private individuals from having human remains in their possession; so that if you are found in possession, you are punished for having committed a crime,” Muundjua said.

Culture minister, Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, said there is an agreement that private individuals can no longer hold onto human remains in Germany.

She said the Namibian government will continue to repatriate the remains.

“Yes, I have picked that there are still some human remains, but the general feeling, as we are engaging, is that nobody really wants to be in possession any longer of the human remains, artefacts and objects that belong to Africa, and in particular Namibia,” she said.

Germany's minister of state, Michelle Müntefering, who accompanied the latest repatriated human remains to Namibia last Friday, declined to comment on whether German citizens were still privately in possession of skulls and artefacts.

The official repatriation process to return the skulls collected largely from the Ovaherero and Nama, who died in German prisons during the 1904-08 genocide, started in 2011.

Leader of the Ovaherero, Ovambanderu and Nama Council for Dialogue on the 1904 Genocide (ONCD 1904), Chief Manasse Christian Zeraeua, said this past Friday they want all the human remains and cultural artefacts returned to Namibia.

Origin of the skulls

During the genocide, tens of thousands of Ovaherero were forced into the Kalahari Desert, after their wells were poisoned and food supplies cut, following an extermination order issued by General Lothar von Trotha.

Those who survived were rounded up and placed in concentration camps, and beaten or worked to death in poor horrible conditions.

Half of the total Nama population were also killed or died in disease-ridden death camps, such the infamous Shark Island in Lüderitz.

Historians suggest that by 1908, only 16 000 Nama remained.


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