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Maori skulls due to be returned to New Zealand

Published söndag 25 januari 2015 kl 17.57
These skulls are from two aborigines that were returned to Australia from the Historical Museum in Lund in 2008. Photo: Fritz Schibli/SCANPIX/TT
These skulls are from two aborigines that were returned to Australia from the Historical Museum in Lund in 2008. Photo: Fritz Schibli/SCANPIX/TT

A macabre collection of almost 800 human skulls at the Karolinska Institute in Solna has been left gathering dust for decades. 

Hundreds of them have been stolen from graveyards abroad. For years, a museum in New Zealand has tried to get some of them returned. Now things seem to be moving.

It is the daily Dagens Nyheter (DN) that has been allowed access to this dark part of Swedish history. The institute is one of Sweden's most prestigious, its professors are among those who decide who will get the Nobel Prize for Medicine every year. But this collection has been all but forgotten about.

It was put together by father and son Retzius who during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century devoted themselves to scientific racism and the measuring of a so called cranial index, believing they could classify differences between people by measuring their skulls.

The human skulls at the centre of this collection, come from looting and simple grave-robbers. Mainly poor people, criminals, people who have committed suicide and people who could not afford their own funeral.

"No-one in here has chosen to be part of the collection. No-one has given their consent to end up here," Olof Ljungström, senior lecturer at Karolinska Institute's unit for medical history, told the newspaper.

Unusual about this collection is also the large number of skulls from outside Europe. Approximately 350 of the skulls are deemed to be from other parts of the world, writes DN.

A handfull of them come from a Maori grave in New Zealand, delivered to the Institute in January 1890 by a zoologist Conrad Fristedt. He has himself described, in a book published 1891, how he would plunder burial caves before selling on his finds in Sweden.

The story has come to the attention of the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, which wrote to ask about the return of the Maori remains in 2008. But the response from the Karolinska Institute has dragged on, according to Olof Ljungström partly because the collection had been deserted for so long, and needed to be gone through and organised. "No-one has gone through this properly since the 1960s. It has basically just been lying around," Olof Ljungström told DN.

But in the end of last year, the Karolinska Institute reached the decision to return the skulls in question. According to Dagens Nyheter, it is now up to the Ministry of Education to formally decide who should have them. A departmental secretary tells the paper they are dealing with the case as a matter of urgency, and that it is likely to be returned to New Zealand during the course of the year.

But the Maori skulls are only a fraction of the whole collection, and what will happen to the remainder is still unsure.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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