Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Germany returns skulls to Namibia

A skull returned from Germany on display in the city of Windhoek, Namibia (AP)
A tribal member reacts to the arrival of skulls from Germany in Namibia (AP)

Hundreds of Namibians have welcomed home the skulls of ancestors taken to Germany for experiments more than a century ago.

The skulls are "testimony to the horrors of colonialism and German cruelty against our people", prime minister Nahas Angula said at an airport ceremony. "The Namibian nation accepts these mortal remains as a symbolic closure of a tragic chapter."

German Ambassador Egon Kochanke said he welcomed home the skulls and added it was time for the two countries to move forward.

The skulls of four females and 16 males, including a young boy of about three, came from Berlin's Charite University. The heads had been removed from their bodies and preserved in formaldehyde intact with faces, skin and hair. Researchers say the skulls do not show any sign of violence, and it is not clear how the people died, though they were possibly victims of German forces in Namibia at the time, or died in a German-run concentration camp.

Once the remains arrived in Berlin, between 1909-14, scientists tried to prove the "racial superiority" of white Europeans over black Africans by analysing the facial features of the heads, according to Thomas Schnalke, head of Berlin Medical Historical Museum.

In the 1920s, the heads were further dissected until only the skulls remained.

Some Herero and Nama people made it clear they are not so willing to forget the past and waved banners demanding reparations from Germany for what some historians call the first genocide of the 20th century. Historians say German troops killed and starved to death 60,000 of the 85,000 Herero people from 1904-07.

"We are ready for battle! We are going to fight!" Herero warriors in military uniform chanted as a leader, chest covered in animal skins, led a cleansing ceremony watched by tribal chiefs in red and yellow hats.

Hundreds of people in ceremonial address were at the airport - Nama women in white dresses with gathered skirts, Herero women in scarlet and emerald green Victorian robes topped by head-dresses shaped like the horns of cows that are the traditional source of wealth. They sang hymns and traditional praise songs.

Two of the 20 fragile skulls are to be unveiled later at another ceremony at Parliament Gardens in downtown Windhoek. It is not known how many hundreds more skulls may remain in Germany.

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