Human Remains from Africa in Göttingen University collections: Provenances, Repatriation, Collaboration

Human Remains from Africa in Göttingen University collections: Provenances, Repatriation, Collaboration

National Museum of Tanzania; University of Göttingen
National Museum of Tanzania
Dar es Salaam
Tanzania, United Rep. of
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
19.05.2023 - 20.05.2023
Sophie Schasiepen, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa; Maximilian Chami, Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Holger Stoecker, Department of Modern History, University of Göttingen, Germany

This joint workshop was one of the outcomes of the three-year research project "Sensitive Provenances" (2020-2023) conducted at the University of Göttingen, which aimed to do interdisciplinary, collaborative provenance research into the (proto-)colonial collections of the remains of people from outside of Europe housed at the university.1 More specifically, the project was concerned with the so-called ‘Blumenbach collection’, initiated by natural scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in the late 18th century, and a collection handed over from the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology to the University of Göttingen in the 1950s and 1960s, which largely originates from the German colonial period. After an initial survey, several focus areas for research and collaboration were identified, namely in Africa and Oceania. Different avenues for collaborative research were established.2

To open the workshop, ADSON NDYANABO (Dar es Salaam) from the National Museum of Tanzania gave a first welcome to the more than 50 participants in English and Swahili. HOLGER STOECKER (Göttingen), in his introductory remarks, gave a brief overview of the 1.200 remains from (proto-)colonial contexts held in the two collections in Göttingen. Stoecker unambiguously stated that the work done through the project should “at best lead to restitution”. Further welcoming addresses were given by NOEL LWOGA (Dar es Salaam), the General Director of the National Museum of Tanzania, and REGINE HESS (Dar es Salaam), the German Ambassador to Tanzania. The opening speech of HASSAN ABBAS (Dar es Salaam), the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources, who could not attend the workshop, was read by SEBASTIAN MWITA (Dodoma) from the Department of Antiquities, Ministry of Natural Resources. He stressed that the workshop was timely since Tanzania is ready to discuss the restitution of its heritage. Before that, the involved Tanzanian institutions need information "the extent of the collections held by foreign institutions, create a trustable database, prepare mechanisms for sustainable preservation of the collection and need the right information on the origin of the collections." He expected this workshop to promote the acquisition of this important information.

The first panel firmly situated the workshop in deeper histories of pre-colonial social, cultural and spiritual practices relating to the ancestors and the violent and destructive forces of German colonialism in Tanzania. The Director of Culture at the Ministry of Culture EMANUEL TEMU (Dar es Salaam) explained that communication with the dead was central in pre-colonial societies. Burial sites, especially of the elders, would become sacred places, to which people went to pay sacrifice and pray for blessings. Some chiefs were never declared dead even when they died, in order to maintain continuity and stability of rule. Importantly, nobody would be allowed to possess dead bodies – they could not be turned into property. During colonialism, several anti-colonial fighters were killed and decapitated, such as Liti Kidanka of Singida, Chief Mkwawa and Chief Songea Mbano. Temu also pointed out the long history of demands for the return of the remains in Tanzania, beginning on community level in the 1950s. RICHARD HÖLZL (Munich) offered some thoughts on what defines ‘colonial collecting’, which he considers to be a crucial part of colonial knowledge production. Next to the reliance on colonial infrastructure, violence and power, he stressed two of the six characteristics, which he used in his framework: the (ongoing) extractivist nature of the process and the silencing of African agents, knowledge and expertise. Drawing on his experience at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich, he explained that there are about 11.000 items from former colonies in their collections, with about 4.100 from Tanzania, a high percentage of which was taken during colonial rule. Using the example of missionary Meinulf Küsters, who ‘collected’ for the museum, he illustrated both the centrality of missions in colonial knowledge production and the ways in which African agents’ contributions, in this case particularly ntotela Kolumban Litolito Makota, were erased. PASTORY BUSHOZI (Dar es Salaam), reviewed different methods of ‘collecting’ the ancestral remains during and after the German colonial period in East Africa, of which he identified three: decapitation, excavations and (in)formal trade. In his presentation, the decapitation of resistance fighters, chiefs and prisoners of war was exposed as systematic tool of colonial oppression and warfare. Among the anticolonial fighters, he named Al Bashir ibn Salim al-Harthi, also known as Abushiri, Chief Mkwawa and the Maji Maji fighters. Bushozi expanded the necessity to critically examine the presence of the ancestral remains in German ‘collections’ to archaeological excavations after the formal end of German colonial rule, such as those conducted at the Mumba and Njasara rock shelters. He made a strong pledge for a debate over the ownership of intellectual property of the research and data produced from such remains. He also pointed out that currently, accessing both the remains and the research conducted on them was incredibly difficult and expensive for Tanzanian researchers. Guidelines, starting at grassroots level with the affected communities, must be developed and implemented by government and institutions, in order to overcome this situation.

OSWALD MASEBO (Dar es Salaam) drawing on an ongoing collaboration between the Ethnological Museum and Humboldt Forum in Berlin and the National Museum and University in Dar es Salaam, clarified that the collections on both sides are creations of colonialism. Museums were used to organise colonial knowledge, control populations and advance racial sciences. Their architecture and inventory systems mirror colonial practices to this day; one encounters crude misrepresentations of and a lack of information about the objects, their creators and owners. From the late 19th century to the late 20th century, collecting and provenance research continued to be colonial and restitution demands were ignored. Collaboration only started in recent years and is decisively marked by neocolonial tendencies. Masebo made five propositions concerning the underlying agendas of the sudden shift on the side of the former colonial powers, among them: restitution, repatriation and collaboration are windows through which Europe and US-America confront the legitimacy of their own nationhood and contend with migration and there is an increasing need for soft power in global diplomatic negotiations. The fact that most projects continue to be funded by foreign aid constitutes an obstacle for research, because it reinscribes hierarchies.

In the second panel, the presentations were more closely related to the remains of people in Göttingen collections. REGINA BENDIX (Göttingen) introduced the reasoning behind the project "Sensitive Provenances" and gave a short background to the development of debates about German colonialism in Germany. The tasks of the project were outlined as such: to make known the presence of ancestral human remains in university collections; to seek to restore individuality to the remains; to reach out to individuals and institutions to inform about the ancestral remains; to facilitate restitutions. Aspiring to the overarching goal to de-objectify and re-individualise the affected people, Holger Stoecker (Göttingen) presented information about where the 71 ancestral remains in the two Göttingen collections had been taken from. Based on archival and literature sources, Stoecker could associate groups of remains different expeditions and colonial agents, namely Gustav Adolf Fischer and Erich Schrecker, both military surgeons, and Erich Obst, geographer at the Colonial Institute in Hamburg. KATHARINA STÖTZEL (Göttingen) began her presentation by explaining why it was decided to do bio-anthropological research on the remains. In her view, the results can help to revise the historical records, which were created by Europeans and often have missing or false information. It is also necessary, because the packaging and storing of the remains led to individuals being mixed up or dispersed in different locations. Again, the aim of her research was the re-individualisation of the remains. Using a graphical model of the human anatomy, Stötzel described a few case studies in which she re-integrated the bones of persons and examined the remains for traumata, signs of burial, cut marks, weathering and other manifestations of the history of the remains that were inscribed into the bones. ALMA SIMBA (Dar es Salaam / Göttingen) and MAXIMILAN CHAMI (Dar es Salaam / Göttingen), who were both fellows in Göttingen, initiated consultations with communities after their findings in Germany. They focussed on Singida, and especially the Isanzu in the Mkalama District, because of the prevalence of people taken from that area among the remains held in Göttingen. Oral history maintained that Chief Kitentemi was arrested in 1902-1903, brought to Kilimatinde and that his remains were taken to Germany, but the community members who Simba and Chami spoke with had not been aware of the scope of expropriation of remains. They requested that the remains be returned and burial customs be observed. Until then, the remains in the ‘collections’ should be covered in clothing. Simba and Chami recommended that repatriation negotiations should always be based on the requests of the communities, but that the return should be done from government to government and that possibly, memorial sites about German colonialism could be built in the district. It was also suggested to look into possibilities for compensation, for example via social services.

The third panel focussed on international perspectives on the ‘collections’ in Göttingen. SOFIA LEIKAM (Göttingen) showed two of the films that she produced as part of her work for the project, in which she documented the fellows’ engagement with the ‘collections’, their assessment of the situation and especially their conversations with the bio-anthropologist of the project team, Katharina Stötzel. MIKAEL ASSILKINGA (Dschang, Cameroon / Berlin / Göttingen) questioned if we can actually speak of ancestors when referring to the remains in collections, since often, only fragments have survived. He also cautioned to speak of ‘Cameroonian’ ancestral remains, since the country’s borders have changed often and there are big cultural, social and linguistic differences within Cameroon. There was hardly any archival information about the ways in which the remains from Cameroon ended up in the Göttingen ‘collections’. Assilkinga used the regional information to try to find out more context: in one case, he found that one so called ‘punitive exhibitions’ had taken place in Batibo (Grassland) to which the remains of a child were attributed and that colonial warfare therefore might have had a relation to the child’s death. Some of the remains were attributed to areas within the Northwest region of Cameroon, a region currently inaccessible to Assilkinga due to the ongoing fighting in the crisis zone. However, he conducted some consultations in Adamawa, a predominantly muslim area, where people told him that usually, one would not demand remains to be repatriated, since, according to muslim tradition, people should be buried where they died. However, since these remains were never buried, the situation was different. Assilkinga ended by suggesting that rather than aiming for national frameworks for return and restitution, there should actually be a commission establishing policies for the Community of Central African States. Strengthening African unity in these issues, also via creating frameworks through the African Union, would be needed to counter the dominance of Europe/Germany in the debates. For MCMICHAEL MUTOK (Palau / Göttingen), the information about remains from Palau in ‘collections’ in Göttingen came as a shock. Several colonial ethnographic sources, especially from Augustin Kraemer, were commonly used as reference for cultural traditions and history in Palau. To learn about the expropriation of ancestral remains made a bigger interrogation into colonial histories necessary. Mutok convened broad community consultations with descendant communities in Palau and Nauru and a delegation from Palau is scheduled to travel to Göttingen next year. In communication with the colleagues from the Karanga Aotearoa repatriation team, Mutok and the ministry are busy developing frameworks for restitutions, for which there will be further consultations with different islands in the region and also more research necessary in museums and other holding institutions.

The fourth panel zoomed in on some more community perspectives from Tanzania, but also offered differently situated critiques of archaeological practices and current restitution debates. REVOCATUS BUGUMBA (Dar es Salaam), the director of the Site and Monuments Department, National Museum of Tanzania, suggested holding more joint workshops between the National Museum of Tanzania, local communities and other German institutions and museums holding human collections from Tanzania. Such workshops could pave the way for the repatriation of human remains stolen from Tanzania during the colonial period.

KILALA LUNZEGERE (Singida, Mkalama District) went into more detail about the origin and perspective of the Isanzu. He explained that the return of the remains would also enable them to pass on community history and that it would be an important signal to the younger generations. Two Isanzu community members, Jumanne Alli Gimbi, as chief, and Erasto John Linza, as a representative, who had already been acknowledged during Simba and Chami’s presentation, were now invited to speak. Chief JUMANNE ALLI GIMBI gave a statement in Swahili, which was translated into English. The current chiefdom arose after the hanging of Kitentemi. The researchers now brought further details about this event to the awareness of the community, which they will debate internally. There are rituals practiced in chief’s Kitentemi’s memory and they would like to continue these in the presence of his remains. All other remains should also be returned so that they can receive dignified burials. Misfortunes such as draughts are understood to be caused by the fact that their ancestors have not been laid to rest.

KONRADIN KUNZE (Berlin) first clarified that he used ethnic categories with caution, since they often were colonial categories, but that he obeyed the self-identifications of the people he was working with. He reported on the results of his search for Mangi Meli’s remains, which he embarked upon because community members approached him about the whereabouts of the remains while he was realising a theatre production in Tanzania some years ago. He has since collaborated on further theatre productions dealing with related issues and a film and an exhibition about the history of Mangi Meli in Old Moshi. Kunze has found evidence that suggests that Mangi Lobulu Kayaa’s remains might be kept as part of the Luschan collection at the American Natural History Museum in New York. Kunze suggested to focus on those remains that have already been identified and urged to involve community members on a much broader scale and earlier on in the process. FELIX SYLVANUS KAAYA (Meru-Arusha), a descendant of Mangi Lobulu, revealed that his family and his ethnic group are ready to retrieve the remains of their Ancestor Mangi Lobulu Kaaya, which were shipped to Berlin during the German colonial period and are now kept in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He outlined the desire of the family and the Meru ethnic group for the government of Tanzania to support them in negotiating with the American Museum where their ancestor is kept to bring him back to his homeland for a traditional burial ceremony. They have mourned the death of their ancestor for a hundred and twenty years, and now they have the chance to bring him home and unite with him culturally and spiritually.

ROBYN HUMPHREYS (Cape Town, South Africa) opened the debate towards a broader critique of past and present archaeological practices and an interrogation into which remains of people were considered to be repatriable and which were considered to be ‘ethically collected’. She stressed that palaeoanthropology was entangled with race science and that even current archaeological teaching methods were detached from critical heritage debates. Because the legitimacy of the science relies on the remains themselves, there is a desire to hold on to collections. Hence, burial grounds become heritage assets for archaeologists. Humphreys cautioned against using time as parameter for which remains were allowed to maintain in collections and which were not - just that remains are old does not mean that it is ethical to hold them in collections. She urged researchers to ask “questions that count” for the community. JONATAN KURZWELLY (Göttingen) offered an analysis of current restitution debates as a social anthropologist whose work has focussed on questions of identity. He asked how successful the negotiations actually are in addressing different forms of injustices. For his presentation, he concentrated on their effectiveness in dismantling the legacies of race science. In his view, race, ethnicity, tribe and nationality remain dangerously prominent in the ways in which questions of return and restitution are discussed. Kurzwelly particularly worried about the pervasiveness of ancestral estimation methods and other bio-anthropological methods, but also a persistence of essentialism in the ways in which historical records and their classifications are treated.

The fifth panel dealt with questions of restitution in a more practical manner. Sebastian Mwita presented for CHRISTOWAJA L. NTANDU, the director of Antiquities, Ministry of Natural Resources. He gave an overview of reasons, objectives and procedures for restitution in Tanzania. The main objectives for creating a national framework are to identify repositories with collections from Tanzania per country and institution, determine the ways in which those were acquired, assess their state of conservation and map a way towards restitutions. Some of the questions accompanying these processes are how the involved stakeholders in Tanzania can benefit socially, culturally, economically and scientifically. While there are challenges, such as different religious beliefs and practices, issues around conservation and storage and questions about legitimate methods to identify the ancestral remains, it was mainly understood that restitutions could lead to the enhancement of international relations and human rights, contribute to healing and reconciliation, bring cohesion and enhance national identity, as well as create employment opportunities through the establishment of community or private museums. WILSON JILALA (Dar es Salaam) reviewed the rate of restitutions from international collections to Tanzania that have been realised so far, which amount to six occasions between 1954 and 2023. A committee for restitution was created in 2022, which is now overseeing the different processes necessary to establish a governmental framework. Next to the creation of guidelines, there is also a need to determine the overall number and value of collections from Tanzania held elsewhere. Whenever possible, restitutions should be conducted. The panel ended with a recorded conversation between Holger Stoecker, Sofia Leikam and TE HEREKIEKIE HEREWINI (Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand / Göttingen), TE ARIKIRANGI MAMAKU-IRONSIDE (Kopenhagen, Danmark / Aotearoa) and SUSAN THORPE (Chatham Islands, Aotearoa/New Zealand), who talked about their very successful repatriation programme. The governmental funding programme has brought back the remains of 792 ancestors since 2003. When the ancestors return, they are first welcomed with a ceremony at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and then, whenever their more exact provenance can be determined, returned to the local communities, who can lay them to rest, observing the local customs.

In the last panel MUSA SADOCK (Dar es Salaam) presented the results of a newspaper and media review concerning demands for the return of ancestral remains articulated in Tanzania. He observed that since the 2000s, there has been an increase in demands, while views opposing restitution were completely absent. The most prominent cases were the remains of Mangi Meli, Chief Mkwawa and Songea Mbango, but also the Maji Maji fighters. In parliament, at different points in time, demands for apologies and compensation from the German government were brought forward. AMANDUS KWEKASON (Dar es Salaam), presented a paper co-written with Wilson Jilala, which discussed different spiritual beliefs, burial practices, current forensic approaches to the handling of human remains and further regulations, which all need to be taken into consideration for the writing up of guidelines for the return of the remains of people from ‘collections’ outside of Tanzania.

In his concluding remarks, CIRAJ RASSOOL (Cape Town, South Africa) made a sweeping appeal for a Pan-African restitution movement. He drew on his schooling in African history and the importance of the Dar es Salaam school of thought for the development of African historiography. Making reference to several current processes of negotiations for restitutions on the African continent, Rassool stressed these were not processes of ‘giving’ or ‘giving back’ (Rückgabe in German) on the side of the former colonial powers. Rather, Africans are making claims and what is being debated are restitutions. The former colonial powers cannot turn these into benevolent gestures – it is a matter of justice.

The participants were clearly moved by this powerful intervention and the workshop was concluded in this spirit of a unified African movement. The workshop was characterised throughout by a lively, sometimes controversial discussion. In general, the discussions during these two days showed that despite the slowness of actual material returns, things are moving in the field. Colonial legacies and violence as well as neo-colonial tendencies are addressed and confronted much more openly than only a few years ago and long-term collaborations seem to have helped to curb ignorance. Notably, Göttingen’s approach to have fellows from different countries visiting at the same time, in order to allow for exchange, was helpful for forging wider networks and strengthening restitution demands. However, the community members from Tanzania, who were invited to the workshop, did not participate in the discussions and there was no translation provided for them. At the same time, references to ethnic categories that seemed to be understood as static and homogenous were permanently woven into the discussions - and then got contested. Similarly disputed were the frequent claims brought forward by different archaeologists, which promised unambiguous determinations of ethnic origins via bio-anthropological methods. The request for restitutions, however, was clear and strong.

Conference overview:

Welcome and introduction

Adson Ndyanabo (Dar es Salaam) / Holger Stoecker (Göttingen) / Sofia Leikam (Göttingen): Introduction of the Workshop and Participants

Noel Lwoga (Dar es Salaam): Welcoming Remarks

Regine Hess (Dar es Salaam): Greeting Address

Sebastian William Mwita representing Hassan Abbas (Dodoma): Workshop Opening Speech

Panel 1: German colonialism in Tanzania and colonial knowledge

Emanuel Temu (Dodoma): People and Culture in the Human Remains Context in Tanzania

Richard Hölzl (Munich): Making Colonial Knowledge. Scientific collecting during German Colonial Rule in East Africa

Pastory Bushozi (Dar es Salaam): The history of ‘collecting’ Human Remains during German colonial period in German East Africa

Oswald Masebo (Dar es Salaam): Collaborative Provenance Research of Museum Collections

Panel 2: Ancestral Remains from Tanzania in Göttingen

Regina Bendix (Göttingen): Sensitive Provenances: Collaboratively Addressing the History and Future of Ancestral Remains from Colonial Times in Göttingen’s University Collections

Holger Stoecker (Göttingen): Ancestral Remains from Tanzania in Göttingen Collections. Provenances and historical contexts

Katharina Stötzel (Göttingen): Results of Bio-Anthropological assessments on Ancestral Remains from Tanzania

Alma Simba (Dar es Salaam) / Maximilian Chami (Dar es Salaam): Community Awareness and Restitution of Isanzu Ancestors’ Human Remains from the University of Göttingen Collections to Mkalama District, Tanzania

Panel 3: Human Remains in Göttingen collections – international perspectives

Sofia Leikam (Göttingen): Making Collections visible – Audiovisual Perspectives on the Collections and on Provenance Research in Göttingen

Mikael Assilkinga (Dschang, Cameroon / Berlin): Human Remains from Cameroon in Göttingen

McMichael Mutok (Ministry of Human Resources, Culture, Tourism and Development, Devision of Archeology, Republic of Palau): The Repatriation of Palauan Ancestral Remains

Panel 4: Community perspectives and general debate on ancestral remains

Kilala Lunzegere (Singida): Isanzu ethnic group’s awareness and perspectives on the restitution of the Ancestor Remains back to the community

Konradin Kunze (Berlin): Marajesho – Towards the return of the hanged leaders of the Wachaga, Wameru and Waarusha

Robyn Humphreys (Cape Town, South Africa): Holding onto collections. The implications of the new repatriation policy for Human Remains from burial sites

Jonatan Kurzwelly (Göttingen): Ethics and politics of collections of Human Remains

Panel 5: Provenance research and restitution

Sebastian William Mwita representing Christowaja L. Ntandu (Dodoma): Process of Restitution of Cultural Objects from colonial contexts, Laws and Policies concerning the restitution of Cultural Objects in Tanzania

William Jilala representing Noel B. Lwoga (Dar es Salaam): The Rate of Return of Cultural Objects from Colonial context and National Museum Plan on Restitution of Cultural Objects

Te Herekiekie Herewini / Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside / Susan Thorpe (Aotearoa / New Zealand): Talk on the Karanga Aotearoa Restitution Program (recorded)

Panel 6: How to move on – future plan for repatriation

Musa Sadock (Dar es Salaam): Human Remains Debate in Tanzania and Future Restitution Plan

Amandus Kwekason (Dar es Salaam): Perspectives on the Handling and Storage of Human Remains in Tanzania

Closing discussion

Ciraj Rassool (Cape Town, South Africa): Closing remarks and testimonials of experience

1 The initiative to a joint German-Tanzanian workshop was developed together with the Tanzanian fellows in Göttingen, since the vast majority of the African ancestral remains in the Göttingen collections came from the former colony of German East Africa. The workshop, therefore, was a manifestation of a longer and multi-layered process of exchange, which will have to continue beyond the official end of this specific research project. The workshop program was designed half by the Göttingen project and half by the National Museum of Tanzania. Although the ancestral remains from Tanzania held in Göttingen were the main reason for the gathering, the topics discussed were much broader, covering relations with the dead and mortuary practices in Tanzania; archaeological and forensic approaches to the human remains; colonial knowledge production, extraction and destruction; community museology; demands for restitution; and neocolonial trends in current restitution debates.
2 Online meetings with stakeholders from countries of origin were organised by Tarisi Vunidilo, project member and Assistant Professor at the University of Hilo / Hawai’i. Five short-term fellowships were realised in 2022. Two repatriations took place during the project: to Hawai'i in February 2022 as a direct outcome of the online meetings and to Aotearoa/ New Zealand in June 2023 as a result of Te Herekiekie's research, Head of Repatriation of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme and fellow in the project.

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