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Maori head goes home, 136 years on

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Maoris believe their ancestors' remains should be respected in their own country (AP)

Maoris believe their ancestors' remains should be respected in their own country (AP)

Maoris believe their ancestors' remains should be respected in their own country (AP)

The mummified and tattooed head of a Maori is being returned to New Zealand after 136 years in a French museum.

Curators hope the gesture will restore dignity to the first of 16 such human heads once displayed as exotic curiosities.

The Rouen Museum tried once before, in 2007, to return the head but was stopped at the last minute by the Culture Ministry. France considers human remains conserved in museums to be among its cultural or scientific patrimony.

A symbolic handover ceremony went ahead in Rouen in 2007. Today was the real thing, thanks to a law passed a year ago that allows Maori heads in France to be returned to their homelands.

For years, New Zealand has sought the return of Maori heads kept in collections abroad, many of which were obtained by Westerners in exchange for weapons and other goods.

Dozens of museums worldwide, though not all, have agreed to return them. Maori, the island nation's indigenous people, believe their ancestors' remains should be respected in their home area without being disturbed.

Some Maori heads, with intricate tattoos, were traditionally kept as trophies from tribal warfare. But once Westerners began offering prized goods in exchange for them, men were in danger of being killed simply for their tattoos.

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Little is known about how the Rouen Museum acquired a Maori head in 1875, offered by a Parisian named Drouet.

"It's an enigma," said museum director Sebastien Minchin, adding that neither Drouet's full name nor profession is known.

Until 1996, when the museum was closed for a decade, the head was displayed with the prehistoric collection.


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