Inscriptions on skull S 2548. The Polish explorer Jan Czekanowski participated in the "German Central Africa Expedition" of the Duke Adolf Friedrich to Mecklenburg in the years 1907-1908, which led into the territory of the former colony German East Africa. Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

About 1,000 human skulls collected from Africa during the era of colonialism will be investigated by German antiquities authorities.

The “menschliche Uberreste” (human remains) will be scrutinized by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the organization recently announced.

“A pilot project has now been launched to investigate the origin of about a thousand skulls from the former colony of German East Africa in detail,” they announced recently. “Research into the provenance of the bones is urgently needed in order to decide on the appropriate treatment of them. This does not exclude the possibility of returning them.”

The skulls come from the colonies of German East Africa, established by the ambitious new nation of Germany in the 1870s, and which was formally disbanded by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. The modern-day countries of Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Mozambique are now in the former German-controlled territory.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation assumed what has come to be known as the “Luschan Collection” from the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the city’s Charite Hospital in 2011. The overall collection includes other pieces of bone, skin and other mortal remains totaling about 8,000 pieces, according to the Foundation.

The skulls were collected by anthropologist Felix von Luschan during the German colonial era and sent back to Europe for research. The anthropologist was an Austrian doctor who was closely affiliated with the University of Vienna, and who at one point was a member of the German Society for Racial Hygiene.

After von Luschan's death in 1924, the skulls were given to the Kaiser Wilhelm Anthropological Institute in Berlin. After World War II, they were moved to the museum at the hospital, where they remained until 2011.

The last six years were spent cleaning and preserving the specimens, the Foundation explained. The scientists have started a research database and done preliminary searches at “foreign archives,” they added. Much of the primary documentation for the Luschan Collection has been lost or destroyed, so the documentation of other collectors is being sought.

“Because collection activity has often been embedded in a colonial infrastructure, files of economic, military or ecclesiastical institutions are also of interest,” they add. “Complementary (non-invasive) anthropological investigations on the objects themselves can also provide important insights into the origin and acquisition.

“The decision of restitution depends on the research results,” the organization added.

The skulls in the collection are not believed to have come from contexts entailing "injustice" against native Africans, according to Bernhard Heeb, the project director for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

If proven to have been collected through legitimate means more than a century ago, the craniums could be used for further science, Heeb added. For instance, paleogenetics could show the prevalence of diseases such as malaria - as well as resistance to it. Isotope analysis could also show where the people had lived and moved during their lives.

"However, such investigations can only be made if we are perfectly certain that these are justifiable from a moral-ethical point of view," said Heeb.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.