Aboriginal remains repatriation

First Nations peoples' remains were stolen in Australia and illegally exported worldwide until the late 1940s. Their journey home is long and arduous. Many museums and institutions still resist returning them.

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Selected statistics

Estimated number of Aboriginal remains still held in museums around the world , most of which are in the UK, Germany, France and the USA. Aboriginal experts estimate there could easily be 10 times that amount.
Year of the first-ever repatriation from the UK.
Number of Indigenous remains brought back to Australia since 1990.
Number of Aboriginal remains held in Australian museums that participate in a returns program.
Total number of Aboriginal remains estimated to be held in Australian museums.
Number of remains Museum Victoria approved for deaccession between 1984 and 2014. In June 2015 the museum still held 1,527 Aboriginal remains.
Days it took the National History Museum, England, to return remains to Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Days it took the Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to confirm the return of a non-Aboriginal WWI soldier's remains to Australia.
Estimated number of sacred Aboriginal objects held by British institutions.
Estimated number of stolen Aboriginal items held in 220 institutions across the world.
Number of British museums holding Aboriginal artefacts. In 2019, 29 had shared information about their collections and 13 had said they were open to repatriation.

Aboriginal remains—scattered around the world

Imagine you cannot visit the grave of and pay your respect to members of your family because their remains are not in a cemetery but tucked away in the laboratory of an overseas university, thousands of miles away.

First Nations peoples' remains have been removed from graves and burial sites, from hospitals, asylums and prisons throughout the 19th century until the late 1940s. Sometimes declared as 'kangaroo bones', they were illegally exported to France, Holland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, England, Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy and the USA.

It is actually on record in the history of Mackay, Queensland, that one overseas collector made a request to the trooper that he shoot a native boy to furnish a complete exhibit of an Australian aboriginal skeleton, skin and skull.

— The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 1955, page 2
Bob Weatherall, Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy, Brisbane.
Bob Weatherall, Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy in Brisbane, exerts himself in the repatriation of Aboriginal remains since many years.
Aboriginal remains overseas
CountryNumber of remains
United States58
Czech Republic15

Source: . Figures correct for 2009.

The largest collection is believed to be held by Professor Matt Kaufman at the Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University. Prof Kaufman keeps an "absolute secrecy" about his collection so that estimates of the extent vary from a conservative "five or ten complete skeletons" to several hundred.

The largest confirmed collection of First Nations peoples remains is with the Natural History Museum in Britain, which has one dried head, 124 skulls and about 20 skeletons from Australia and Tasmania, five of which have names and addresses.

In early 2009 the British government revealed that in 2005 it held 382 sets of remains in 18 institutions.

However, it is impossible to guess the extent to which First Nations peoples remains are held in private collections or stored in attics or in the plethora of regional and small private museums.

Some Australians hold remains that have long been in the possession of their families, and a few return them.

Given the rather small official figures, it can only be guessed that several thousand and probably more than 10,000 First Nations people corpses and parts of corpses were brought to England alone.

Numbers can vary greatly because some institutions count every bone as a 'remain', and sometimes remains thought to belong to one individual turn out to belong to many.

The huge amount makes Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy in Brisbane, Bob Weatherall, propose that the missing remains constitute the original and first Stolen Generation of First Nations people.

"What is also abundantly clear," concludes The Guardian in an extensive article, "is that there would be no debate at all if the remains were the immediate ancestors of living white Australians," a view Bob Weatherall agrees to: "We don't hear the same thing when foreign affairs or the military are repatriating Australian Vietnam veterans who have been left over in Vietnam."

First Nations people believe the spirits of those whose remains are not at home cannot rest. "Our belief is that when our people's remains are not with their people and in our country then their spirit is wandering," says Elder Major Sumner. "Unless they are going back home the spirit never rests."

Timeline: The repatriation of Aboriginal remains

The damage to the Aboriginal community of having remains [overseas] is astronomical. The spirits of our dead are disturbed by being separated from their bodies. The remains are as important to us as land rights. It's a much more volatile issue, closer to the heart than even getting our land back.

— Michael Mansell, First Nations lawyer

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 12

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.

2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.

News clip: Remains returning home

Watch this ABC News clip that documents an emotional ceremony in the outback town of Longreach which marked in October 2009 the return of the remains of two First Nations Elders, who were separated from their land for decades.

Theft of remains: "A skull could be worth a year's wage"

In the 1800s First Nations people's body parts were highly sought-after 'antiquities' that were traded by all sorts of people, from opportunists to amateur archaeologists.

A German merchant from Hamburg ordered skulls to be sent to Germany because it was "important for ethnology". But science wasn't on his mind. In a sales catalogue of 1874 he offered a First Nations skull for 600 silver coins, right next to an entry for the skeleton of a bat.

A skull could be worth a year's wage, so people were digging up First Nations people's grave sites. Skulls of Tasmanian First Nation people were worth much more as they were considered "the most primitive people on the planet" but also because scientists assumed that Australian First Nations people would die out soon.

Those who did not want to wait until First Nations people died simply shot them for their bones. "We know that some of our people were murdered just so the prized skulls of what settlers hypocritically called savages could be donated to scientists," says Tasmanian First Nations woman Sara Maynard. "There was a massive trade in Tasmanian Aboriginal remains in the mid-1880s."

William Ramsay Smith was a physician at Adelaide Hospital in the late 1890s. He used his position to supply the University of Edinburgh with "a steady and illicit supply of Ngarrindjeri [First Nations clan] and other remains—bones, skin, hair samples—for medical and scientific purposes".

Elders responded by insisting that caskets be open at funerals to ensure they contained the body of a loved one and not sandbags.

Story: Smuggling remains through customs

From the diary of Dr Erik Mjöberg (cited in the documentary Dark Science):

"We arrived at the mist-covered port of Fremantle. It was forbidden by Australian law to take Aboriginal skeletons out of the country.

Two officers from the customs office made a brief inspection.

'Have you got any skeletons with you?' he said.

I quickly replied: 'Well I think I must have brought at least a dozen kangaroo skeletons with me.'

The officer's face brightened and he said: 'I think you might be a bit of a joker, doctor.'

'Oh yes, definitely,' I replied.

And thus began the skeleton's long journey to Sweden."

Most 'scientific research' never led to a publication of any sorts. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC refused to return remains for a decade, yet failed to publish a single scientific paper about them. "I think there was a real sense of trophy hunting," says Dr Martin Thomas, a historian of the Australian National University, in an attempt to reveal the real reasons for the theft of remains.

Burying remains on Country is important because "living Aboriginal people find their navigational points on their country by knowing the dead are in certain places," as Dr Thomas explains. "They talk to them, at times... the spirits stay on country and are associated with the physical remains. And the spirits are connected with the living." First Nations peoples traditionally believe the dead can't rest unless they are properly buried or interred.

Apart from the repatriation of remains, First Nations people also face an uphill battle for the return of sacred objects and artefacts. Authorities and organisations continue to refuse their return, arguing they are a separate category to human remains.There are 32,000 objects in British institutions alone, and more than 100,000 items in 220 institution around the world.

Note that not all First Nations communities decide to demand the return of their objects.

Every single one of our burial grounds was robbed.

— Tom Trevorrow, former chairman, Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee

When First Nations man Tom Trevorrow was a young man he saw white men driving around with Aboriginal bones and skulls on their cars' dashboards. One farmer "had a swimming pool and he'd have bones laying around the edge of it," Trevorrow remembers.

But even today some people lack respect for First Nations remains. People who find remains later ask for them to be returned. Remains continue to be exposed by natural erosion and increasing development, a trend that is likely to continue. Human remains thought to belong to a First Nations burial site have been discovered in sand dunes in Sydney's south in October 2007.

Sunset over the Murray River.
"There were bones everywhere along the Murray." When excavation machines called 'rippers' gouged irrigation channels through the earth to draw water from the Murray into the fields they regularly opened up burial sites, exposing Aboriginal remains . Pictured: The Murray River at Swan Hill.

In the 1980s, I was sent to an Australian medical school to collect a doctor for a seminar. Imagine my horror when I saw hundreds of bodies of Aboriginal men, women, children and babies in giant formalin bottles.

— Experience of an Aboriginal nurse

Story: Inside a museum's storeroom—a First Nations perspective

Jason, a character in John Danalis' book Riding The Black Cockatoo, reveals his feelings when he was working as an intern in the Melbourne Museum.

"'One day I tripped over this box, literally tripped over it. I opened it up, and inside were the remains of my people. Can you imagine that? They tried to keep it a secret from the dumb young blackfella. The more I looked the more I found. Well, I started making noise, asking questions: 'Why do you need all these old ones, what use are they, why can't they go back to country?'

'What did they say?'

'Research, they said, we need them for research.' He spat the words out like pieces of rotten food.

'Well, show me,' I said, 'show me the research.' And you know what, they couldn't show me one bit, not one paper. And after all these years – decades, man! – that my people have been jammed in boxes with little metal tags attached to them as if they weren't even human beings.'"

There was supposed to be a whole Aborigine in pickle in one of the Royal Colleges.

— Dr Jack Aitken, retired anatomy professor, Britain

The spiritual perspective of missing remains

Ngarrindjeri Elder Major Sumner from the lower Murray River area in South Australia has been involved in First Nations remains repatriation for several years. He tells how he's been in contact with the spirits of the deceased .

"When you're over there [in America or Europe] doing ceremonies, you get a feeling that these [deceased Aboriginal] people are relatives from your own community who have been laying around in boxes since the 1800s, down in basements. When you are there, thinking about them, it feels that they are speaking with you. You're in contact with them and you feel that there's happiness because they're going home. A lot of these feelings are coming from their spirits.

"When I was at the Manchester Museum, the director, Tristan Besterman, asked me if I'd smoke him and I asked why. He told me that over the years of being director, he had seen things, images, that he couldn't explain. After I smoked him, he gave up that job and is now helping us identify other remains, and talking with institutions."

For some Elders missing remains explain why the land is suffering. When Elders in Brisbane, Queensland, learned that remains had been taken away from their country they said "No wonder that country's sick. We can't get bush tucker there. We can't go good hunting there. That country's been no good all the time."

Neil Carter, who was involved in many repatriation activities of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, says that "the spiritual side of [repatriation] is very, very real and very strong and this is the thing that our elders talk about, that we need to bring those remains back and put them back into country. Otherwise, the spirits of those people that were taken away don't rest."

When the spirit is in another country, they can't rest. The are very sad.

— Tommy May, oldest member of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre

Read more about Aboriginal spirituality.

The slow return of First Nations remains

Museums and universities across the world hold First Nations remains which have been brought back from trips to the 'untamed land' and its "savage natives".

In the early 1980s First Nations man Tom Trevorrow, his brother George and Ngarrindjeri countryman Major Sumner started lobbying museums to return remains and cultural objects with almost no government support .

Back then, when First Nations community organisations learned of remains in particular institutions, they pooled money and booked flights to negotiate their return.

Increasingly institutions are realising that holding First Nations remains disrespects not only First Nations peoples' culture but also the deceased's descendants. More than 1,000 remains have been returned to Australia between 1998 and 2008, but tens of thousands of remains are still held in overseas institutions. An accurate register of what remains are where does not exist.


In the absence of any legal obligation, institutions and museums have different reasons to refuse or delay returning First Nations remains, often for decades, while they return non-Aboriginal remains, for example from a WWI soldier, within days.

  • Fear of more requests. Some institutions hand back remains almost with secrecy because they fear that if they did it publicly more First Nations communities would come asking for their remains.
  • Last minute panic. The Natural History Museum in London attempted to carry out last-minute destructive tests claiming that remains were "a unique and irreplaceable resource to advance knowledge for current and future generations".
  • Loss of reputation. Institutions don't want to see their collections shrink to a size that is no longer impressive, despite the fact that they most probably never have the resources or time to fully research the remains.
  • Skulls are objects. When museums declare skulls as 'objects' they might not be covered by its policy on human remains.
  • Too valuable. Another excuse for not returning remains is that they are "very valuable" and the museum just wants to keep them.
  • No request received. In an interesting twist of events, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, denied having received a request after a delegation of First Nations people had travelled to the UK.
  • Fear of losing a job. The most vocal opponents to repatriation are often the anthropologists in the museums who, without their collections, fear they won't have a job.

There is "endless obfuscation, bureaucratic dead-ends and cultural indifference". Other institutions flatly refuse to co-operate.

A notable exception is the University of Edinburgh which has repatriated all of its First Nations remains.

We had to fight and crawl to get back our dead.

— Michael Mansell, legal director, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

Even if First Nations remains make their way to Australia, the return to the rightful communities is sometimes delayed because responsibility for repatriation is split between four separate government departments.

To avoid disturbance of reburied First Nations remains some newspapers don't publish their exact locations but mention "a location near" the town closest to the burial site.

Some museums continue to keep remains which were already returned because First Nations people have requested to keep them in their high-security repositories.

The world view is changing, I think, in terms of traditional owner groups regaining their ancestral remains. I think there's a strong moral and ethical argument that the scientific community has to take into account.

— Graham Atkinson, spokesperson British Museum

Definition: Unprovenanced' remains

Many First Nations remains were collected without noting down where exactly they came from, let alone to which clan the deceased person belonged.

When no-one knows where they come from, remains are called unprovenanced.


The 2018 movie Black Panther triggered a world-wide conversation about stolen artefacts and repatriation when it highlighted fierce British resistance to repatriation.

Protocol of a repatriation

What happens when First Nations people travel overseas to collect and rebury the remains of their ancestors? Here is the protocol of a repatriation .

  1. Meeting at the hotel to discuss the strategy for the day.
  2. Meet staff and the Head of Anthropology of the museum that had volunteered to return remains from its collection. Discussion of the logistical details of the handover ceremony (e.g. flags, ceremony participants, speakers, smoking ceremony, explanations to attendees). Check if quarantine and inspection documents to allow the remains to pass through customs in Australia are ready.
  3. Do a ceremony walk-through to make sure everything has been thought of.
  4. Meet the Ambassador at the Australian Embassy.
  5. Meet museum staff to see and inspect the remains. First Nations people might want to introduce themselves to their ancestors' spirits. Prepare the boxes with the flags.
  6. On handover day up to 100 people can attend the ceremony. Speeches are held from the Ambassador, representatives from the museum and the First Nations delegation.
  7. A short film is shown of the country and people the remains come from.
  8. The smoking ceremony is performed.
  9. On the final day the delegates rest, check out the museum or city where they stay before they catch a flight back to Australia.

Government programs

Australia has no laws directly governing repatriation, and museums cannot be forced to return either human remains or objects. But there were, and are, some government initiatives dedicated to the return of First Nations remains.

The International Repatriation Program (IRP), for some time administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Office for the Arts, aimed to facilitate the unconditional return of remains, but not objects, held in overseas collections. Between 2000 and 2009 the IRP helped return more than 1,000 remains.

The Department of Communication and the Arts continues these efforts with help of the Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation which advises the Minister for the Arts.

For several years the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA, now Department of the Environment and Energy) was running the domestic Return of Indigenous Cultural Property (RICP) program, which supported the return of both human remains and secret sacred objects from institutions within Australia. Between 2001 and 2009 the RICP helped return 1,383 ancestral remains and 1,358 secret sacred objects.

It is time that the whole anthropological community outside Australia recognises that the scientific value of these collections is zero."

— Steve Webb, anthropologist

Reburial challenges

In the absence of adequate records kept at the time remains were removed it can be hard to determine the most appropriate country and site to return them to.

Even if an individual whose remains have been returned can be identified, it can be tricky to determine what ceremony is appropriate for reburial, as opposed to burial.

In some cases First Nations people must come up with a ceremony that is entirely new—an unsettling prospect for some of them.

And if the deceased has already been through particular rituals, what are the implications if those rituals are repeated? Will they still be effective? Could they endanger the spirits of the dead and those trying to honour and farewell them?

We can't do it the full traditional way in this day and age and we're not going to do it the fully modern way so we've had to find the halfway mark.

— Tom Trevorrow, chairman, Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee, SA

Not everyone is allowed to get involved with reburials. Authority and decision-making rests with senior men and women who, in turn, can take their cues from deeply traditional 'proper lawmen' throughout a region. Some institutions refuse to return remains, often offering flimsy excuses for why they cannot return them.

Funding reburials is not easy with the Australian government giving only little support. The outstanding repatriation work of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre alone was estimated to cost $600,000 between 2009 and 2013.

While we go to great expense to find and recover the bodies of fallen servicemen wherever they are in the world, no official attempt has ever been made to find, mark and commemorate the sites where Aborigines were shot down by settlers, soldiers and police.

— Henry Reynolds & Marylin Lake

Another challenge is to plan the reburial of so many remains when they are returned. Planning, ceremonies and travel cost a lot of money which makes it unlikely that each and every remain gets its own reburial. Reburials can be heavily influenced by Christianity.

Land for reburials needs to be tenured and negotiated with national parks, private landholders, local councils and other stakeholders. Some First Nations groups ask to develop a special 'resting place'. In some cases, government-funded 'garden sheds' housing secret sacred objects were destroyed by floods or fire.

Some First Nations groups involve their children in reburial ceremonies to let them know how important this was for future generations.

If we don't fulfill customary obligations, that regret will stay with us forever and we shouldn't expect to be welcomed by the ancestors when it's our turn to go.

— Bob Weatherall, Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy

Story: Wangayarta: A model for reburial sites?

"I’ve never seen anything like this," the Elder exclaimed excitedly. "This is what we all need in our community, a special place where we can take our old people, where they’ll never be dug up again, never be put into boxes, shipped across the other side of the world."

Kaurna elder Uncle Major “Moogy” Sumner had all the reasons to be excited. He participated in a ceremony that laid to rest the remains of more than 100 First Nations ancestors at Wangayarta, a special place in Adelaide’s north.

Wangayarta is not a typical cemetery. It has been carefully designed to permanently house the ancestral remains of the Kaurna nation, the traditional owners of the Adelaide plains.

There are no rows of headstones, but lawns shaped like a Kaurna shield, surrounded by thousands of young acacia, paperbark, kangaroo grass and other endemic species. Large mounds frame the grass and include soil collected from every corner of Kaurna Country.

Wangayarta can be a model for other First Nations resting places. If combined with interpretative signs that explain the theft and ultimate return of First Nations remains, it can also support the truth-telling Australia so desperately needs.

Aboriginal remains wrapped in Paperbark are put in a hole in the ground.
Reburial of Aboriginal remains. Remains of two Bundjalung people are put to rest nearly 200 years after they were stolen and brought to Europe. Photo: Theresa Dalton, courtesy of The Koori Mail

The Charite's collection is among a dozen in Germany and many more in Europe where Australian diplomats have asked curators to repatriate Aboriginal remains. Britain and Sweden have already successfully returned Aboriginal remains.

About 10,000 remains are still held by Australian, about 5,000 by British institutions.

Don't be fooled to think that First Nations remains are those of anonymous ancestors. In the case of the first American return some traditional owners believe the collection may include the remains of their grandmothers.

This is about our ancestors and our heroes who fought against the invasion. They had their heads cut off and their skeletons were sent overseas to museums around the world.

— Bob Weatherall, Chairman Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy, Brisbane

The long travel of Aboriginal remains

The case of the Charite in Berlin is a good example of how First Nations remains change hands and travel within and in-between countries.

The Charite's collection of 10,000 bones was gathered by German pathologist Rudolf Virchow. After his death in 1902 he bequeathed them to a state society.

In the 1930s the collection was confiscated by the Nazis, and when World War II started they were stored in a warehouse where they remained for decades after the war had ended.

Several German museums cared for the bones collection until they arrived at the Berlin Charite in 2005.

But even in the presumably save hands of museums First Nations remains are prone to theft or destruction by war bombings which sends them on a journey further away from repatriation.

Video: "Return to Country" – Sweden returns First Nations remains

In 1910–11 Swedish scientists stole First Nations remains from throughout the Kimberley region.

Watch as almost 100 years later they are finally returned home to Fitzroy Crossing. Video by First Nations company Goolarri TV.

If you do something wrong and you right it, there is no animosity after that.

— "Return to Country" video

International repatriation of remains

Some countries have signed agreements with Australia to facilitate the repatriation of First Nations remains. In July 2000 the British government committed to help return First Nations human remains from collections in the UK to Australia.

More than 600 First Nations ancestral remains are believed to be held by UK institutions. Among them is the skull of warrior Pemulwuy. The skull might have been transferred from the Royal College of Surgeons to London's Natural History Museum, but the museum's director advised that much had been destroyed during World War II. Even a royal initiative by Prince William in April 2010 could not accelerate the matter.

The Australian government is committed to the unconditional return of Indigenous human remains from overseas countries and institutions.

— Jenny Macklin, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister

The Australian government contributes minimal, if any, funds to the repatriation of First Nations remains.

Estimated cost to recover and rebury the bodies of about 300 Australian and British soldiers at Fromelles, northern France, funded by the Australian government.
Price to construct a new Commonwealth war cemetery at Fromelles. Australia shares this cost equally with Britain.


Book cover: Riding the Black Cockatoo

John Danalis grew up with a First Nations skull sitting on the mantelpiece of his family's home. This is the story of the journey he undertakes when he decides to return the skull to its traditional owners.

Part history, part detective story, part cultural discovery and emotional journey, this is a book for young and old, showing the transformative and healing power of true reconciliation. Read more

Book cover: Human Remains

Human Remains tells the scandalous story of how medical men obtained the corpses upon which they worked before the use of human remains was regulated.

Not only convicted murderers, but also First Nations people and the unfortunate poor who died in hospital were routinely turned over to the surgeons.

Book cover: Possessing The Dead

London, 1868: visiting Australian First Nations cricketer Charles Rose has died in Guy's Hospital. What happened next is shrouded in mystery. The only certainty is that – like many others – Charles Rose's body did not go directly to a grave.

Possessing The Dead explores the disturbing history of the cadaver trade in Scotland, England and Australia, where laws once gave certain officials possession of the dead, and no corpse lying in a workhouse, hospital, asylum or gaol was entirely safe from interference.

Movie: Dark Science

Movie: In 1910, a scientist called Erik Mjöberg led the first Swedish expedition to Australia. Mjöberg set about plundering and desecrating their grave sites and smuggling the remains back home—actions that were to have lasting consequences for all concerned.

Dark Science is a critically-acclaimed documentary about this expedition.


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[39] 'Fears for bodies of the fallen Fromelles diggers', The Age, 17/8/2009
[40] 'Fromelles to get Digger cemetery', The Australian 1/8/2008

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Korff, J 2021, Aboriginal remains repatriation, <>, retrieved 14 July 2024

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