Human remains from Palau return home

Ceremony for the restitution of human remains to Palau on 25.03.2024 Photo: Uni
Ceremony for the restitution of human remains to Palau on 25.03.2024 Photo: Uni Göttingen / Peter Heller

University of Göttingen and State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony hand over human remains from collections to Palau

In a formal ceremony on Monday 25 March, the University of Göttingen will hand over the ancestral human remains to Palau. Human remains from Palau that are currently still in the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony in Leipzig will also be returned: a skull, a plaster cast of a skull and a sample of hair.

There are two collections at the University of Göttingen that still contain a large number of sacred human remains from former German and other European colonies, including Palau. The Republic of Palau, an island archipelago located in the westernmost Pacific Ocean were colonised by the German Empire in 1899.

The human remains taken from Palau were acquired in the course of the -Hamburg South Seas Expedition- (1908 to 1910) of the then Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg. Ethnologist Paul Hambruch travelled to the Palau archipelago as a member of the expedition in 1909 and, as documented in his diary entries, collected several human remains. The exact circumstances have not yet been researched in detail.

After the expedition returned, the human remains from Palau, together with hundreds of other human remains, were integrated into the anthropological collection of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, now the Museum am Rothenbaum (MARKK). In the 1950s and 1960s, they were handed over to the University of Göttingen. This included the human remains of eight individuals from Palau and Pulo Anna, a small island that administratively belongs to the Republic of Palau.

The human remains from Palau, which are in the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony, came to Germany in the 1870s and 80s, partly through the natural scientist Karl Semper and partly through the purchase of the holdings of the former Museum Godeffroy in Hamburg.

The upcoming ceremony with representatives from Palau is another step in the University of Göttingen’s endeavour to acknowledge and come to terms with colonial history, as well as establish productive relationships with post-colonial societies oriented towards the future. As part of the Volkswagen Foundation funded research project "Sensitive Provenances: Human Remains from Colonial Contexts in Göttingen University Collections", sacred remains have already been returned to Hawaii and New Zealand. In addition, a new project was recently launched together with MARKK to continue this process.

"The University of Göttingen shares the German Government’s position that research must be carried out with regard to human remains in collections with the aim of returning them to their respective homelands," says Professor Metin Tolan, President of Göttingen University.

As Minister Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl, Ministry of Human Resources, Culture, Tourism and Development, Republic of Palau says: "Mesmechang er a Kotel", meaning: -As a Matrilineal Society, our ancestral remains will now return to their maternal resting place-. Tmetuchl explains, -Ours is a society in which social roles and property are passed on exclusively through the female line from mothers to daughters and we are happy that the human remains of our ancestors are now returning to their maternal resting place.-

The University of Göttingen invites the press to the ceremony on Monday 25 March 2024 at 15:00.

Location: Alte Mensa, Wilhelmsplatz 3, 37073 Göttingen

Speeches will be given by:
  • Professor Metin Tolan, President of the University of Göttingen
  • Representative of the Ministry for Cultural Affairs and Science of Lower Saxony
  • Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, Director, State Ethnographic Collections Saxony
  • Holger Stoecker, -Sensitive Provenances- project, University of Göttingen
  • Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl, Minister of Human Resources, Culture, Tourism and Development, Republic of Palau
  • McMichael Mutok Jr., Palau Registrar/ Historic Preservation Specialist, Bureau of Cultural and Historical Preservation, Palau
  • Ribka Kintaro (Chant and Speech), Representative of Pulo Anna Council

Musical programme:
  • String quartet of the Göttingen Symphonic Orchestra

In order to be able to organise this event, in particular with regards to the ceremony, it is a requirement for all’attendees to register by Monday 18 March. Please