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  • Bones of Contention: Why are so many human remains locked up in Berlin museums?


Bones of Contention: Why are so many human remains locked up in Berlin museums?

Thousands of skulls and skeletons from victims of German colonialism are lying in Berlin museums. Why is it so hard to give them back?

Photo: SPK / photothek / Thomas Koehler

“We are here to talk about our ancestors who were brutally murdered but are still not in their graves. But before we can talk about them, we must ask their permission.”

Mynaka Sururu Mboro walks with a wooden stick. Moving carefully around the podium of the large community hall in Neukölln, he opens a 35 ml bottle of Rotkäppchen – the East German Sekt – and pours a small amount into the potted tree behind him in tribute to the ancestors. When he resumes his speech, he assumes their voice:

“Free us from the museums. Free us from the basements where they spray us now and then with disinfectant. Free us from the universities, from the clinics where they keep us on the shelves with the skulls of monkeys, gorillas and orangutans. Free us from the depots where we cannot breathe. Bring us back home and rest us in peace forever.”

With this address, Mboro opens the symposium on colonial human remains in Berlin – but this event is only a continuation of what has been his cause for 40 years, since he moved to Germany from his native Tanzania.

There may be no more visceral example of the legacy of German colonialism than the huge number of dead bodies still being held in Berlin to this day. Thousands upon thousands of human skulls, skeletons and other vital parts are locked up in city museums, hospitals and cultural institutions – and even some still buried beneath the ground.

There may be no more visceral example of the legacy of German colonialism than the huge number of dead bodies still being held in Berlin to this day.

Mboro, who moved to Germany in the 1980s, is among the activists who have been campaigning for decades for their return. The title of the symposium, held last November by the activist organisation Decolonize Berlin, states a simple demand: “We Want Them Back”.

The current estimate is that there are at least 10,000 human remains from colonial contexts stored in dozens of institutions across Berlin. But naming these items as ‘remains’ almost works to elide the violence of their collection. This grisly archive includes skulls, teeth, tufts of hair, jawbones, whole skeletons, femurs, skin: shelf upon shelf of death in all its variety. The index numbers of the more than 3,000 skulls in Berlin’s Museum of Pre- and Early History (MVF) are marked directly on the frontal bone; among the thousands of items in Humboldt Forum’s human hoard, there is a single smoke-preserved heart.

The exact contexts behind these collections differ; some are from far-flung explorations, but in many cases, these human bodies were stolen from German colonies across the world in the late 19th or early 20th centuries as part of an effort to prove to Western scientific standards that white Europeans were genetically superior to their foreign counterparts.

The former Royal Museum for Ethnology in Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From an indigenous perspective, it may have looked like trophy hunting. Grave robbery, bribery, harvesting corpses from people killed in Namibian concentration camps: very little was off limits for the educated men who filled their imperial storehouses. German anthropologist Felix von Luschan had such a mania for amassing this human data that his S-Sammlung, or skull (“Schädel”) collection, was eventually one of the largest collections of skulls in the world.

Even today, bits and pieces of these victims of imperial power continue to turn up.

After being made a departmental director of the Royal Museum for Ethnology (now the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum) in 1904, Luschan was said to have been so obsessed with increasing his store of human heads that he never got around to carrying out his intended research.

It is still not precisely known how many human remains from former German colonies are currently being held in Berlin. They took so much, they lost track. By around 1900, even the museum directors were complaining that their collections were overflowing. Even today, bits and pieces of these victims of imperial power continue to turn up.

In December 2017, someone browsing at the Staatsbibliothek, or Berlin State Library, found a tuft of human hair inside a large manuscript. In 2020, the head of Berlin’s Lautarchiv, the sound archive at Humboldt University, opened a corrugated cardboard box and discovered a human larynx.

Namibia, Tanzania, Alaska, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands: the ongoing calls for the repatriation of Berlin’s human remains span the globe. While a handful of returns have taken place, many are stuck in a bureaucratic limbo.

An accompanying podcast, Dig Where You Stand, produced in collaboration with The Berliner, tracks how these collections were built, the fight for their return, and what these locked away bodies of human beings tell us about Germany’s relationship to its colonial past.

Bring Me the Head of Mangi Meli

Taken as a whole, this library of corpses is almost too much to comprehend. But for Mboro, the search began by looking for a single person: one missing skull.

When Mboro was told the story of Mangi Meli by his grandmother, she would often begin by mentioning the Acadia tree. “She used to tell me, ‘Don’t throw stones at those trees. If you do, blood will come out.’ And we didn’t. We were very afraid.” It was around one such tree that Mboro’s grandmother was forced to gather with hundreds of others from the area and watch the hangings.

Photo: Sammlung Hans Meyer / SLUB Dresden / Deutsche Fotothek

Mangi Meli was a hero of the resistance to German imperial rule; in the Kichaga language local to that area of Tanzania, Mangi is a title like king or chief. He came to power in what was then known as German East Africa at a time when it was ruled by Carl Peters, an imperial commissioner known to the locals as the man with blood-stained hands due to his reputation for cruelty. (There are still a number of streets in Germany named for Peters; Petersalle in Berlin’s African Quarter in Wedding was symbolically renamed but is still on the map.)

Mangi Meli resisted German rule for about a decade, but on March 2, 1900, he was brought with 18 other regional notables to be publicly executed by the Germans. Eminent among the condemned, Meli was the last to die. After they hanged him, the Germans chopped off Mangi Meli’s head and took it for their collections. There is no known record of what happened next.

“My grandmother used to tell us that it took more than six hours. The Germans tied a special knot to torture him. They wanted it to take so long to show the people what would happen if you dare do anything against [them],” Mboro says. “At the end of the six hours, to see whether he was dead, they shot him. When we look for the skull, a bullet hole could be proof that this is Mangi Meli’s head.”

The story of the missing head of Mangi Meli has been kept alive by people like Mboro’s grandmother, who remember what they saw on that day and passed it down through the generations. Activists like Mboro have continued to tell the tale – and it was the pressing demand to find his head that compelled Berlin institutions to finally begin sorting through their vast collection of skulls.

Packed as Goods for Export

Mangi Meli was not the only murdered resistance leader to have suffered this fate. His severed head could represent any of the thousands of skulls stolen under German colonial rule, allowing us to picture its journey to Berlin as a single item in this globe-spanning plunder. What journey might Mangi Meli’s head have taken following his death?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first step would be to ‘treat’ the skull, that is, to scrape it clean. A guide on the collection of similar museum specimens published in 1876 advises readers to “skin the head as far as the tip of the nose, remove all flesh from it, take out the eyes and remove the brains”. This task might be undertaken by a German soldier or scientist or could be assigned to an African Askari, a local mercenary, or a local prisoner. The process of scraping away skin and tissue is called maceration; the resulting nicks on the bone can still be detected by archaeologists today.

At the turn of the century, the Berlin museums were becoming lost in a confusion of their own plenty.

Scraped white, the human skull would then have been packed in a trunk stuffed with cotton from one of the local forced-labour plantations and transported, perhaps following the route of the Usambara railway, whose construction was underway in 1900, to the Tanzanian coastal town of Tanga. There, we can picture the trunk being loaded besides hundreds of others onto a steamship brimming with the colony’s material wealth: cotton, rubber, coffee, gold, the sisal plant for making rope, the bodies of other human beings, all now alike as goods packed for export.

As the ship set sail, it would meet the routes of the other ships making their way back to Germany, each laden with their own haul. They brought coconut oil, pearls and vanilla from the Pacific islands; saltpetre, silver, wood and tobacco from the Americas; whale oil from the oceans; with improvised rigging they would have strapped down cultural artefacts among their freight: statues, masks, canoes, thrones, carved tusks, totem poles, crowns, sceptres and idols; all this and, from everywhere, the bones and bodies of the kidnapped dead.

By caravan, by steamship, by rail, we can envision Mangi Meli’s skull transported for weeks across the ocean to Hamburg and then arriving in Berlin at a time when the city was overflowing with colonial loot.

At the turn of the century, the city’s museums were becoming lost in a confusion of their own plenty. In his 2002 book Objects of Culture, the American historian H. Glenn Penny writes that “[b]y 1900, Germany’s leading ethnographic museums has descended into chaos… totems from Canada, porcelains from Peking, wooden bowls from Australia, Polynesian canoes, Eskimo clothing, Mayan alt[a]rs, Benin bronzes, statues of Buddhist and Hindu gods, weapons from the Amazon… remained for years in crowded entryways, walkways and stairwells. Boxes brimming with artefacts that had been packed away for decades were stacked to the ceilings of basement rooms, storage sheds and offices”.

Berlin amassed so much that even the British were jealous. One contemporary anthropologist wrote that by the close of the 19th century, “the Berlin [Ethnological] Museum has accumulated ethnographical collections almost ten times as large as the British Museum”.

An Archive of Humankind

Ilja Labischinski is the researcher at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum responsible for looking into the provenance of its extensive collection of human remains, which spans thousands of items. “The founding director, Adolf Bastian, wanted to create an archive of humankind. The idea of the time was that all around the world, cultures were dying out. He wanted to preserve an authentic state of people without any kind of European influence. It’s a naive idea, but that’s why so many things are today in the Ethnological Museum. We have half a million to one million objects today in the museum.”

The skulls of two young Herero men were delivered to the city by the CEO of Deutsche Bank.

But in seeking to preserve these cultures, they condemned them. Alongside their fascination, scientists of the time believed that the destruction of the native peoples from whom they stole was inevitable. Instructing his agents across the globe to gather as much “material” as they could, Bastian wrote that the “Indians of North America” would “vanish like the snow before the rising sun of civilisation”. Felix von Luschan, his successor at the Berlin Museum, stressed in a letter that “ethnographic collections and observations can either be made now, in the twelfth hour, or not at all”.

These scientists wanted to observe the cultures of the world in some original state of nature, but then commanded every modern technology to disrupt those cultures. They believed modern civilisation was blowing out of Europe like a vast, homogenising storm, but often, these men were the storm they feared. What they wanted to chart, they abused; in their haste to preserve, they destroyed.

For all their duplicity, these ‘enlightened’ collectors represent the best case. Simultaneously with these scientific expeditions, Germany was conducting genocidal campaigns of extermination, murdering people in the hundreds of thousands. These resulting human corpses were plundered, too.

The extermination orders against the Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia began the first genocide of the 20th century. In one documented Berlin case, the skulls of two young Herero men were delivered to the city by the CEO of Deutsche Bank.

A researcher looks at the digital archive of Felix von Luschan’s skull collection. Photo: SPK / photothek / Thomas Koehler

Berlin’s Skeletons

Lying in shoeboxes, gathering dust on shelves, locked in airless depots, buried in pits beneath the earth: since more and more human remains keep turning up, it is difficult to give a full account of the colonial subjects whose bodies are currently in Berlin. However, the most comprehensive record comes from a recent scientific report conducted by the anthropologist Isabelle Reimann for Decolonize Berlin.

In the Museum of Pre- and Early History, which takes care of Luschan’s skull collection, there are around 3,800 colonial remains. In the Ethnological Museum, there are 3,000 to 4,000 remains. This is one of the most varied collections, with many so-called ‘processed remains’, where teeth, hair and skin have been worked into ritual objects like sculptures, musical instruments and idols.

Some of these are still on display to the public. The Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory (BGAEU) refuses to provide exact information, but a colonial context can be considered likely for many of their 3,500 human remains. And although the Charité wanted to hand over their entire collection to the MVF in 2011, some remains were not deemed acceptable.

For this reason, they still have the remains of 58 people, mainly from Africa and Oceania. It is not known exactly how many people remain buried on the grounds of what is now the Frei Universität. In 2014, seven sacks of bones were discovered and later cremated. Following a public outcry, archaeological work discovered another 16,000 bone fragments.

What they wanted to chart, they abused; in their haste to preserve, they destroyed.

These remains were considered particularly sensitive, since this site is suspected to have stored a mixture of colonial remains and the dead bodies of people killed in Auschwitz, sent back to Berlin for medical research. It seems very likely that there are more bones on their Dahlem campus, waiting to be discovered. And the Museum für Naturkunde has been working on a survey of the human remains in their collection since the summer of 2021.

Those are the major Berlin collections, but it doesn’t cover all of it. There are four skeletons of unknown origin in Weißensee Kunsthochschule; the Lautarchiv has those human larynxes, likely from Namibia; the German History Museum has two braids of hair stolen during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China, plus one shrunken head of unknown origin.

Those are the known remains. There may be others, both in museum collections and in private hands. It is difficult to say who else has skeletons in the closet.

Why Can’t We Give Them Back?

What does Berlin gain by holding on to the results of this systematic crime? A clear answer is difficult to find. The Berlin museums have undergone a significant change in their approach in the last decade or so, and although a few of the institutions remain hostile to having their collections evaluated, most are now willing to make a return, at least in principle.

The first steps in this process came in 2011, when the Charité initiated a Human Remains project that examined the provenance of their collection, eventually bringing about the repatriation of a large part of its Namibian remains. But so far, returns like these are the exception. So, what is stopping the museums giving back the bodies of these ancestors?

The most common answer is: they don’t know where their remains came from. If these collections were already in disorder in 1900, the subsequent century of war and division in Berlin only made things harder. Faulty or incomplete archiving, jawbones that don’t match skulls, mould from improper storage – these are just some of the factors that make a clear assessment difficult.

Bernhard Heeb, a curator for the MVF, said that when the museum took over Luschan’s skull collection, it was “stored in smashed cartons and boxes in an old bunker which was warm, moist, wet. Completely moulded in parts. We had to clean the whole collection for two years. Some items were so heavily damaged that they couldn’t be salvaged. They were gone”.

This task of sorting through and organising these ancestral remains to determine their origin is known as provenance research. This process is not always politically neutral.

Scientists need to match archival records with old colonial documents filled with racist assumptions, such as labelling the remains of indigenous South American peoples “archaeological” even when they belonged to the recent dead. The colonial collectors considered this entire culture to be a thing of the past even as they pillaged it.

Even deciding what to research first can be contentious. One source told The Berliner that when the MVF – a museum in possession of many problematic remains but also one of the most active Berlin institutions working toward their restitution – first made their plans to sort through their collection of skulls, they wanted to work chronologically starting with the oldest.

This would mean that the most recent crimes were addressed last and, given how long this research takes, many of the surviving relatives would no longer be able to learn the fate of their ancestors. It was the work of Mboro and the other activists searching for Mangi Meli that compelled the museums to reassess this decision.

In 2022, the MVF published the results of a two-year research project that examined the remains from East Africa. Another investigation into the West African portion of the collection is currently underway. But simply identifying the remains does not mean they can always be returned, which can frustrate activists. At the We Want Them Back symposium last November, one audience member expressed this complaint.

“Sometimes I don’t understand this [term], ‘provenance research’. It sounds so fancy, so scholarly. But if there is a skull that says Hottentot [an outdated racial term], what research is still being done? All that needs to be done is to talk to the [Nama] people, so that the skull can come back.”

This is where researchers arrive at the second problem. Even when they manage to identify a skull – the inscriptions are often incorrect – a return can be blocked due to legal complications or disputes. Germany requires an official request at the governmental level from the country of origin, which can be hard to secure, often putting the affected communities whose ancestors were stolen at odds with their national governments.

“If you ask me, I would bring them back tomorrow,” says Heeb. “But it’s not about what I want. We can’t give back human remains without asking the agreement of the government. And to be honest, the governments we contacted didn’t move an inch. Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon or Togo. It’s not a priority for them, obviously. This is not our decision.”

Do these countries not want their dead back? The issue is politically fraught, and threatens to disturb the self-image of modern Germany as a country that is able to set an example for the world in its ability to reflect on and atone for its historical misdeeds.   

Some of the first returns of human remains to be repatriated from Berlin were the bodies of murdered Herero and Nama peoples sent back to Namibia. However, during talks over their responsibility for this genocide, Germany has consistently refused to meet representatives from the affected groups, dealing only with the national government.

When a Namibian delegation suggested that direct negotiations of this type had actually occurred in another case – that of Jewish victims of Nazism – the German diplomatic envoy became furious: how dare these descendants of people murdered in South-West Africa attempt to relativise the Holocaust?

Perhaps the ultimate reason that so much of this vast archive of human bodies has remained here is that they are simultaneously considered too important, and not important enough. For a long time, the Berlin museums refused to return these remains for fear they might then be compelled to give back a greater part of their ethnological collection; now, they stall because the correct type of request has not been made. Neither approach will allow the dead to rest.

To Free the Dead

Kodzo Gavua, professor of archaeology and heritage studies at the University of Ghana, came to Germany last year for the We Want Them Back symposium. He argues that African scholars and researchers should be much more involved in the return of remains.

“When you do provenance research without involving affected communities and people, then that research will be in vacuum. What are you looking for? On whose terms? Provenance researchers from Germany will go around Africa, and they’ll just hear what they want to hear.”

Currently, German academics receive the majority of the funding for such projects. Heeb goes so far as to call the ongoing work “a cash machine” for some institutions. “A lot of people profited. They created projects, they got a reputation, they were very ambitious. It brought a lot of people jobs. To be honest, this is why a lot of people still want this topic running.”

Ultimately, the question for Gavua is how Europe can plunder African countries and keep these ancestral remains locked away in their museums, and then behave as if they have no responsibility for an ongoing situation of inequality.

Photo: SPK / photothek / Thomas Koehler

“If we do not bring these items back and allow Africans to restitute, to repair the damages that were done to their minds, their economy and their society, they will continue to travel to Europe irrespective of the dangers, irrespective of the laws,” Gavua says. “They will still find their way, because they have a shared heritage.”

It has been repeatedly stated that the return of these ancestral remains should not mark the end of a relationship, but its new beginning. To free the dead from their ongoing captivity will not alter our shared past. Instead, it might liberate our future.