Alarm raised over return of human remains

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The Independent Online

Leading scientists said yesterday that their research would become practically impossible if the Government sanctioned the return of human bones and other museum exhibits to their countries of origin.

Some native groups in Australia and America have asked Britain to return human remains which have become part of museum collections used for research into forensic science, anthropology and human origins. A government report by a committee of experts is due to be published this summer and is expected to recommend limited repatriation of some human material such as bones, teeth and hair samples.

But three specialists said repatriation would ruin many of Britain's most invaluable collections and make it difficult or impossible to continue important studies into an array of subjects from the nature of Neanderthal man to the identity of a modern-day murder victim.

Chris Stringer, professor of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, Robert Foley, director of evolutionary anthropology at Cambridge University, and Richard Neave, a forensic artist at the University of Manchester, said it was essential that museum collections be kept intact. Dr Foley said they feared the issue had been addressed in such a way that the scientists' case had not been put across adequately.

Studying ancient bones and other human remains had helped to explode the myth that mankind is split into biologically distinct and indivisible races and had aided the understanding of diseases such as syphilis, Dr Foley said.

Professor Stringer said his colleagues in Australia could not study human remains in their own country because of laws stipulating the reburial and destruction of Aboriginal bones. If Britain followed suit studies in Britain would also stop. "We would have to give up research," said Professor Stringer.

Cambridge University has about 18,000 human specimens and about 500 of these could be at immediate risk of repatriation, said Dr Foley. At the Natural History Museum, only about half of its collection of 20,000 human samples comes from Britain and 2,000 could be sent back straight away.

Professor Stringer said scientists were worried about what the Government's Working Group on Human Remains would recommend. "It is a very diverse group and we worry that it will come to the simple answer of following the US and Australia and specimens will end up being lost for ever," he said.

Dr Neave said: "It would be folly to let a lack of understanding of science cloud our judgement to the extent that future generations will be deprived of these collections."