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The Troubling Origins of the Skeletons in a New York Museum

Thousands of Herero people died in a genocide. Why are Herero skulls in the American Museum of Natural History?

BY Daniel A. Gross via NewYorker

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In what has been called the first genocide of the twentieth century, colonists pushed Herero into the desert and forced others into concentration camps. Sixty-five thousand Herero died.

Photograph by Ullstein Bild / Getty

On a warm morning last September, a dozen Herero men and women paid a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan. The men wore dark suits and ties, like guests at a funeral. The women wore colorful dresses and hats, following a tradition from Namibia, their home country, in southern Africa. They had come to view relics of a tragic episode in their nation’s history, and to ask the museum, after almost a century, to give them back.

Kavemuii Murangi, an education researcher who lives in Maryland, arrived wearing a gray suit and dark glasses that hid his gentle eyes. Inside the museum, several curators led Murangi and his companions to a private room upstairs. A table was covered with cardboard boxes, which the curators invited them to open when they felt ready. Inside the boxes were human skulls and skeletons. On many of the skulls, four-digit numbers had been scrawled above the eye sockets. Many of the visitors wept at the sight. “We looked at each other, we talked to each other, we hugged each other,” Murangi told me afterward. They were staring at remains of their own people.

A little more than a hundred years ago, German colonists stole these bones from what they called German Southwest Africa, following a Herero rebellion, in 1904. General Lothar von Trotha had moved quickly and brutally to put down the uprising. “Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot,” he wrote in his Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order. “I won’t accommodate women and children anymore.” In what has been called the first genocide of the twentieth century, colonists pushed Herero into the desert and forced others into concentration camps. Sixty-five thousand Herero died. Similar tactics killed ten thousand Nama men and women. (Both groups have called on Germany to pay reparations, and will appear in U.S. federal court on January 25th in an attempt to force the country to do so.)

In 1906, Felix von Luschan, an Austrian-born anthropologist, sent letters to colonial officers asking that they gather bones and ship them to him in Berlin, for research. In a letter discovered by the historian Andrew Zimmerman, one of the officers replied, “In the concentration camps taking and preserving the skulls of Herero prisoners of war will be more readily possible than in the country, where there is always a danger of offending the ritual feelings of the natives.” In response to one anthropologist’s request, the German overseers of a concentration camp gave Herero women shards of glass and told them to scrape the flesh from the corpses of Herero men. Luschan eventually sold his entire personal collection, including the skulls of thousands of people from across the world, to the American Museum of Natural History. The purchase doubled the museum’s physical anthropology holdings and helped establish the A.M.N.H. as a leader in the field.

In August, 2017, Christian Kopp, a post-colonial activist in Berlin, learned from Konradin Kunze, the author of a play about bone collecting in German colonies, about the existence of the von Luschan Collection in New York. Shocked and angry, he sent an e-mail to Herero descendants he knew in the U.S., including Murangi, and they contacted the museum. The A.M.N.H. stores human bones in two offices and several storage cabinets on the fifth floor. “That’s our most heavily utilized collection,” David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the museum who was present for the Namibians’ visit, told me. Thomas is also the author of “Skull Wars,” a candid and critical history of human-skeleton collections. “We have scientists researching those materials almost on a daily basis,” he added. Many scientific papers in evolutionary biology have cited the von Luschan Collection. Nonetheless, the A.M.N.H. has gradually come to acknowledge the troubling origins of many remains in its possession. The museum does not deny that its Namibian remains, from eight individuals, may include the products of genocide; the bones of two people, collected at an unspecified date, were taken from locations where Germans killed Herero in concentration camps. At least one skull shows damage that may have resulted from violence.

I spoke with Murangi and his companions immediately after the meeting, at a small park outside the museum. He seemed shaken and spoke slowly, struggling at times to find words for what he had seen. Hunching his broad shoulders, he told me that, when he was a student at Columbia University, in the eighties, he considered the A.M.N.H. an esteemed place of learning. Now he wonders whether his own ancestors are in a cardboard box somewhere. “Because the genocide was so absolute, it could be any one of our relatives,” Murangi told me. Mekahako Komomungondo, a Namibian-born hair stylist who lives in Yonkers, described the visit as excruciating. “Although this genocide happened a hundred and something years ago, it feels at is if were yesterday,” she said. “No matter how old a wound is, once you prop it open, it becomes just as painful.” Museum staff members said they are open to handing over the Namibian remains. But first, descendants will have to decide what they want to happen to them.

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Many Herero descendants agree on two things: that their ancestors’ remains must return to Namibia, and that the neglected history of the Herero and Nama genocide deserves global attention.

When the American Museum of Natural History was founded, in 1869, anthropologists were circling the globe, buying bones from dealers, and digging up graves in the name of science. “For European colonial powers, it was a worldwide phenomenon,” Holger Stoecker, a Berlin historian, told me. Competing museums exchanged bones in a “global network” of human remains, Stoecker’s research has shown. Many anthropologists sought to differentiate races by physical characteristics, such as skull size. Some disputed the significance of race; Franz Boas, who is often called the father of modern anthropology, rejected the supposed hierarchy of races, arguing that human behavior varied independently of racial characteristics. Even so, during the decade that Boas worked as an A.M.N.H. curator and, ultimately, the head of the anthropology department, he asked an explorer to bring living Eskimos to New York for research, then had their bodies dissected and studied when they died of tuberculosis. Henry Fairfield Osborn was the museum’s president from 1908 to 1935, and he advocated the study of “backward races.” In 1923, Clark Wissler, who curated the A.M.N.H. anthropology collection under Osborn, wrote, “We are strong in anatomical collections from the American Indians, but are lamentably weak in such collections from other parts of the world, especially from the more primitive races.”
Late that year, Felix von Luschan put his life’s work, a collection of more than five thousand skulls, up for sale. In a letter written weeks before his death, he said that it contained “rarities” and “treasures,” and set the price at forty thousand dollars—more than half a million in contemporary terms. Documents in the A.M.N.H. archive show that, after offering thirty thousand, Osborn agreed to the full amount. When Luschan died, in Berlin, in early 1924, his wife, Emma, received the funds. She shipped the skull collection to New York; she had her husband’s remains buried in Austria, the country of his birth.

Despite his disgraceful collection practices, Luschan rejected theories that classified some human beings as inferior and remains in high regard among anthropologists. But his work was easily hijacked. The anthropologist Eugen Fischer, a professor of Josef Mengele and a prominent Nazi, also collected Herero skulls; his writings, which have recently resurfaced on white-supremacist Web sites, often cited Luschan. Some skulls that Luschan collected did not reach New York, and were instead absorbed into the Nazi-led Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Many historians believe that when German colonists decimated the Herero and the Nama, they laid a foundation for the Holocaust.

To cover the costs of the Herero bones, Henry Osborn solicited a major donation to the A.M.N.H. from a German-American philanthropist of Jewish descent, Felix Warburg, whose Manhattan mansion now houses the Jewish Museum. Without knowing it, Warburg paid for remains that were taken from the victims of a genocide.

The visit by the Herero descendants was not the first time that the A.M.N.H. had been forced to reckon with the ugly history of its collections. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or nagpra, which required institutions to inventory and repatriate human remains. (nagpra applies only to museums that receive federal funding, and does not cover human remains taken from outside the United States.) Researchers at many museums, including the A.M.N.H. and the Smithsonian Institution, opposed its passage. Suzan Harjo, a Cheyenne and Muscogee activist who co-wrote the law, remembers museums arguing that they owned human remains. “What we did was change the conversation from property rights to human rights,” she told me. In the inventory work that followed, one of the names that surfaced was Felix von Luschan. On the island of Lanai, Luschan personally dug up more than eighty Native Hawaiian remains, some of which ended up in the A.M.N.H.
Seven months after the passage of nagpra, Edward Halealoha Ayau, an indigenous-rights advocate from Hawaii, visited Ian Tattersall, then the A.M.N.H.’s curator of anthropology, to ask that he comply with federal law and return the Native Hawaiian remains. Ayau says he was shocked to find that Tattersall had simply placed the remains on a tray and covered them with a sheet. “It was so egregious that we kicked him out of his own office, so that we could do our prayers and our ceremony, to apologize to our ancestors for this kind of treatment,” Ayau said. He told me, and others I spoke with agreed, that the A.M.N.H. has since dramatically improved its repatriation practices. “It was very early days in the repatriation process, and frankly, we had not developed normal procedures for dealing with repatriation,” Tattersall told me, adding that he didn’t expect the visit to occur so soon. “In the last thirty years, we’ve learned a great deal, and we now have procedures in place which all parties seem to be pretty happy with.” Still, the museum arguably missed an opportunity, in 1991, to investigate the sources of its von Luschan Collection. If it had done so, it would have discovered, among other grim details, the disturbing context in which its Namibian remains were collected.

Now the museum waits on formal requests from communities of descendants to determine the future of the Namibian remains. Of the Herero descendants I spoke with, all agreed on two things: that the remains of their ancestors must ultimately return to Namibia, and that the neglected history of the Herero and Nama genocide deserves immediate global attention. But the visitors disagreed on one crucial question: More than a century after grave atrocities, how should a community of the living commemorate its dead?

One month after Kavemuii Murangi visited the museum, a delegation of Namibian leaders, including Herero and Nama chiefs, arrived in New York with a different vision for the future of the remains. “Those bones can no longer speak for themselves,” Vekuii Rukoro, a Herero chief, told me. “We need to speak for those bones, and bring out the criminality of what has happened to them.” He wants the museum to put the bones on display, as part of an exhibition on the little-known genocide that decimated his people, helped lay the foundations of the Holocaust, and stocked the shelves of natural-history museums around the world. Namibia has tried a similar approach: in 2011, when Berlin’s Charité hospital repatriated several Herero skulls, they were transported in a casket draped with the Namibian flag and later displayed in a glass case next to a national-liberation monument.
Barnabas Veraa Katuuo, a Namibian-American architect, supports this proposal, and believes that an A.M.N.H. exhibition could empower the Herero in the international fight for recognition. Katuuo is a plaintiff in the American federal lawsuit that aims to hold Germany legally and financially responsible for the genocide. (His attorney, Kenneth McCallion, previously represented Holocaust survivors in a lawsuit against French banks.) “We can’t just bury these remains,” Katuuo told me. “As much as we hate it, we have to do it.” But others disagree just as strongly. “That’s not morally or ethically right,” Jephta Nguherimo, the great-grandson of a Herero genocide survivor, said. “You never see the bones of your loved ones once they’re buried.”

Suzan Harjo told me that museums have used similar disagreements as excuses to delay or prevent repatriation. “We used to get pitted against each other all the time,” she said. Thomas, the A.M.N.H. curator, said that, in this case, the museum will try to identify descendants who have some kind of standing that allows them to represent the wider community. Either outcome—repatriation in the near future or an exhibition—could be possible, he added.

I asked Thomas whether the museum now prohibits research on human remains collected in a context of violence or genocide. “We don’t look at it like that,” he said. When possible, the museum asks descendants what they want, but many scientists didn’t bother to record the specific groups from which they seized remains, so large portions of the collection are unaffiliated. “They are fair game for study,” Thomas said. Murangi told me, “Instead of sitting on these remains until people discover them, they should inform affected communities about human remains in their possession.” Thomas told me that the museum lacks the resources to research the provenance of its entire collection.

In practice, descendants often shoulder the costs, and the years of effort, of locating and repatriating their ancestors one by one. When I called Ayau, the Native Hawaiian advocate, he was in the Seattle airport, accompanying the remains of four individuals on their return journey from Dresden, Germany. Ayau, who is fifty-three, has worked on repatriation cases for more than half his life. He has participated in a hundred and eighteen successful repatriation cases, including fifteen from institutions abroad. In October, the Dresden State Art Collections apologized for collecting, and delaying the return of, Native Hawaiian human remains. “We were healed by it. They were healed by it,” Ayau told me. During the trip, he learned about a separate collection of Native Hawaiian remains, in Berlin. “Here we go again,” he said. “Such is the nature of this work.”
When I sat with Murangi in the park, after the visit to the A.M.N.H. in September, he told me about his great-grandmother, a survivor of the Herero genocide. She rarely spoke about it, he said, and, he thinks he understands why. “She was raped by a German,” he said. When he looks in the mirror, he notices that his skin is lighter than that of many Namibians. “I don’t obsess about my looks, it’s not the struggle that I have. It’s what happened to my people.” After Murangi became a father, decades later, he caught himself avoiding the subject of genocide around his three daughters. “You think about shielding them, so that they do not have to carry the burden of genocide,” he told me. “You just separate yourself from it completely, and put it in a locked box, and say, ‘I don’t want to go there again.’ ”

In October, his twelve-year-old daughter chose to write a middle-school research report about the links between the Holocaust and the Herero and Nama genocide. She insisted on finishing it, even after a photograph of a concentration camp made her cry. “It’s a burden,” Murangi told me. “A burden of memory.” Recently, he decided to tell her about his visit to the American Museum of Natural History, and the boxes of Namibian remains stored on the fifth floor. Her response moved him almost to tears. “I’m very proud of what you’re doing,” she told him. “I think you’re making a difference.”

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8 Comments

  1. Hallo Daniel
    Thank you very much for your prompt replies.
    The inclusion of human, animal and other organic remains as prized exhibits are an international reality, and unfortunately not only a historic one at that, Daniel. Entire fortunes and careers are still dedicated to this pursuit. Some nations’ GDP benefit from the discovery and display of bones! Everything from mummified human and animal remains to prehistoric discoveries. Shiploads of Egyptian cat mummies were ground up and ploughed under as agricultural fertilizer in England, regardless of their cultural historical significance. I have shaken many a vegan and vegetarian who never paused to consider the meaning of ‘bone china’. Human heads and facial skin fashioned into masks and fetishes are still being turned into ghoulish cultural objects that also appeal to collectors elsewhere.
    I am not keen to point out particular institutions, Daniel. In my own country’s recent past library holdings and art collections have borne the brunt of student protests and these were damaged or destroyed by fire in some instances. I would have to bear the responsibility for any damage to such museum collections EVEN in instances where the unspeakable might be housed.
    In the case of the Herero and Nama skeletons the very fact that these had been catalogued and displayed as such and then subsequently subjected (by the curator’s own admission if I am not mistaken) to repeated scientific scrutiny and scanning and calibrations serve as evidence of the crime of genocide. No confusion can exist anymore. These are the pitiful remains of eight human beings, their bones cruelly stripped of its flesh. How much more can be exacted or extracted from them? The attrocity thus continues. Is this not manifestation of a complete absence of humanity in the living? This cannot be right.
    I sincerely hope that your article and resulting social media discussions can create a new awareness of what is OK and what is not.
    In the midst of a world that is watching the irreversable destruction of centuries of civilization in just a few decades I believe that this one institution must endeavour to uphold human decency and decide to return the remains of these Southern African desert people to their ancestral land. It must surely also serve as a reminder to their colleagues elsewhere.
    I shall leave the matter in your kind hands for now.
    By all means feel free to use the contents of my emails to you. I speak only for myself though and not on behalf of so many others.
    It was good to meet you.
    All the best.

    Elvira

  2. From Daniel A Gross:
    Dear Elvira,

    Thank you very much for reading my story. The encounters you describe sound unsettling indeed. Can you tell me more? Where did you encounter those remains, and was this a common experience or something that only a librarian might have come across?

    If you don’t mind, I would like to share your comments on Twitter, where some of the same audience that saw the story will come across them. And I certainly encourage you to write to others in this field, for example the curator Dave Thomas at the AMNH, and any other museums known to have human remains. I imagine they will be struck by the stories you can tell.

    Warmly,
    Daniel

  3. Also from Daniel A Gross:
    P.S. I also suggest that you write to a gentleman named Wandile:

    gwandile@gmail.com

    He is a PhD student in South Africa writing his dissertation on collections of human remains. Perhaps you will be able to share some information with him.

  4. Dear Miss Khaobane
    I have sent an email to Mr Gross – the contents of my previous post. I thought it would be more respectful and useful.
    All the best.
    E

    1. Oh dear E

      What great effort on your part in trying to expedite the return of the remains of the Herero and Nama. Your email contents of which are below are harrowing. “All too often over many years have I found unidentified, unclassified dessicated bones, skin like parchment and fragile tufts of hair representing the human lives they once were”.

      I will certainly see how I can assist in this initiative.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and act.

      Keep well.

      Kindest

      PK

  5. Dear Sir
    You must please forgive me for intruding via an unrelated website. I do not participate in any social media and hence it is difficult to contact authors such as yourself.
    I am a South African. My early childhood was spent in Windhoek, then South West Africa. I am today a retired librarian and hence my concern for the eventual outcome of these Herero and Nama remains of which you write so eloquently.
    All too often over many years have I found unidentified, unclassified dessicated bones, skin like parchment and fragile tufts of hair representing the human lives they once were. The faded tags of identification, the decay covering them like a dust, the nonchalant manner in which they were left on museum shelves were always an undeniable indication of the eventual fate of those human remains.
    What can I do to encourage all concerned to expedite the return of these skeletal remains of eight Herero men and women to their ancestral land? Should I commence with a petition perhaps?
    I have written letters to curators of museums in the past. Sometimes even regarding exhibits featuring animal ‘trophies’ in thoughtless displays! Mostly though it involved us, people.
    The genocide of the Nama and Herero people go unmentioned, barely remembered. It is too unsettling for me as an African of European descent to just move on from reading your article. Please write to me. I wait to hear from you.
    Very best wishes.

  6. So what are we going to do about this? It has long bothered me, that the preservation and display of human bones should be considered as a natural activity in museumology.
    Will you start an online campaign, Miss Khoabane? I do not participate in social media but I do sign online campaigns.

    1. Dear Elvira

      Now that I’ve brought this matter to your attention, will you start an online campaign? I have never signed those online petitions but I would start with this one.

      Thanks for the idea, we should do something.

      Kindest regards

      PK

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