The University of Strasbourg in north-east France has undertaken the task of verifying the origins of its collections of human skulls, bones and other remains that were collected in the wake of abuses under German colonial rule in Namibia and Tanzania. It comes as part of a restitution process demanded by both countries.
The University of Strasbourg has set up a scientific council whose task is to provide accurate information on the origins of the human remains in its collections, which date back to the colonisation of Africa under German and French rule.
“We are living in a period where we are looking back at our colonial past and attempting to address it,” said Mathieu Schneider, vice-president of the university and chair of the scientific council, which had its first meeting on 23 June.
“Holding on to objects and human remains obtained during colonisation might be a problem if we want to have a peaceful dialogue between Europe and Africa.
“That’s why if we have a request from Africa, we cannot ignore it.
“We have to engage into a dialogue to understand what they want, undertake a scientific evaluation of what we actually have and what happened. Only then can a proper restitution take place, as long as it is legally possible to do so,” he said.
In March this year, Namibia’s Ovaherero Genocide Foundation requested the return of human remains obtained after the massacre of Ovaherero and Nama people by German troops in Namibia between 1904 and 1907, considered the first genocide of the 20th century.
Germany formally recognised it as such in 2021.
The Namibian request followed another by the Moshi province of Tanzania in January 2020, seeking the restitution of remains belonging to the Wachagga people from around Mount Kilimanjaro. Many of the group's leaders were killed after resisting colonial rule.
At the time, the Germans collected skulls and bones to support a pseudoscientific theory supposedly proving the supremacy of the Caucasian or white race over African or black people, based on the false idea that skull shape and size were indicators of ethnic origins and mental abilities.
More than 100 artefacts
The University of Strasbourg has 110 human artefacts – skulls and bones – in its collection, obtained during Germany’s colonisation of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“Approximately 30 of them come from Tanzania, especially from the Wachagga tribes, and we may have two skulls from the Ovaherero,” Schneider said.
The process of gathering more information on the remains will be a lengthy one, Schneider told RFI.
“We need to have detailed information of each human remains. We have an existing catalogue telling us that such skull come from either Namibia or Tanzania. But we have to verify everything,” he said.
“We cannot give anything back without being 100 percent sure that the human remains are indeed from the country requesting them.”
Planned changes to French law
As things stand today, the university cannot simply send the human remains back to Africa. Such restitutions from public collections require special approval by the French parliament.
But earlier this month, the French Senate unanimously approved a bill that would establish a legal framework for the restitution of human remains in public collections, making it simpler to return them. It will be submitted for a vote by the lower house of parliament in October.
“We created our scientific council now because we know there is a high probability that in a couple of months there will be a law allowing us to make the restitution to Nambia and Tanzania,” explains Schneider.
Previously French museums have relied on ad hoc laws to return human remains in their collections, such as when more than 20 mummified Maori heads, held in several French institutions, were sent back to New Zealand in 2012.
The University of Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region on France's border with Germany, shares in the colonial history of both countries. Alsace has shifted from German to French control on several occasions over the centuries, remaining part of France since 1919.
“At the end of the 19th century we were part of the German empire, which also colonised parts of eastern and southern Africa,” said Schneider.
Germany’s colonisation of Africa started in the 1880s and covered large territories including modern-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia, and parts of Ghana, Togo, Cameroon and Mozambique.
Schneider believes that Strasbourg University needs to confront the most difficult parts of its own history.
“In the last five years, we have undertaken important work to find out what exactly happened within the walls of the university when the Nazis were there, during the Third Reich in the 1940s,” he said.
“We also need to confront our colonial past. Especially the 19th century when the Germans colonised parts of Africa. We have traces of that period in our collections.
“So if we want to write a truthful history of our university, we need not only face the period of the Third Reich but also the period before.”
(c) 2023, RFI