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Victory for Tasmanian Aboriginals

15 May 2007

An agreement has been reached between the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) for the return of remains removed from the island in the 19th Century during forced land clearances for European settlers.

The NHM had been insisting on carrying out invasive tests on the remains before handing them back to the islanders. Aboriginals viewed the testing as a desecration to their beliefs and took the case to the High Court in February 2007. According to aboriginal custom the dead are said to be “souls in torment” until properly buried. DNA already taken from the remains will be preserved but the remains themselves returned to the Tasmanian Aboriginals.

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) presented evidence in the case, which was eventually settled by mediation. The agreement allows the remains to be returned without further tests and previously extracted DNA to be preserved.

MRG’s Head of International Advocacy welcomed the agreement: “This is a major change by the NHM from their original position of carrying out testing regardless of the Tasmanians’ wishes. The remains will now be laid to rest according to aboriginal custom.”

According to the TAC, there were around 8,000 Aboriginals in Tasmania when the British settled the island in 1802, but by 1850 there were just 47 left, after thousands were killed in massacres and or by disease brought in by the colonists.

The remains, which include teeth, skulls and other bones, will be turned over to a delegation from TAC in a private ceremony at the museum on 18th May.