DNA Links Africa's Stolen Skulls With Living Descendants

Germany to return skulls tied to Chagga people of Tanzania, stolen under colonial rule
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 8, 2023 12:55 PM CDT
DNA Links Africa's Stolen Skulls With Living Descendants
Stock photo of a human skull.   (Getty Images)

Scientists have for the first time identified living descendants of people whose skulls were pillaged from Africa under German colonial rule. Since 2017, Berlin's Museum of Prehistory and Early History has been working to trace at least 1,100 of 7,700 skulls it acquired from a local hospital museum in 2011. They are thought to have been taken from German colonies in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as trophies, but more often to be used "for now-discredited research to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans," per the BBC. Their poor condition and lack of records has made tracing the skulls difficult, though numbers and words written on some of the skulls have offered clues to their origins, Insider reports.

After much investigation, researchers recently learned enough about eight of the skulls to request DNA samples from 10 people viewed as potential descendants. Two came back as a "likely" match, while one was a perfect match, Insider reports. It confirms a person living in Tanzania is a descendant of an individual whose skull was inscribed with the word "akida," a title applied to advisers to tribal chiefs under German rule. This particular "akida" is thought to have been a high-ranking advisor to Mangi Meli, ruler of the Chagga people from the Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania (part of the former colony known as German East Africa), whose own skull was taken to Germany after his execution for rebelling against German colonialists in 1900.

"Finding a match like this is a small miracle and will probably remain a rare case even despite the most meticulous provenance research," says Hermann Parzinger, president of the Berlin-based Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which oversees museums around Berlin, per AFP. "The relatives and the government of Tanzania will now be informed as soon as possible," SPK adds in a statement. SPK has previously returned skulls representing victims of the genocide of the Herero and Nama tribes to Namibia, formerly known as German South West Africa. (It has also returned Hawaiian ancestral remains.) Skulls taken from Africa remain in other European countries. After years of pleas, Britain's Natural History Museum agreed last year to return some skulls to Zimbabwe, per the Telegraph. (More Tanzania stories.)

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