10 October 2017

Rwanda: Mystery Shrouds Presence of Nearly 1,000 Rwandan Human Skulls in Germany

Photo: http://www.irinnews.org
Skulls of genocides victims lying at the Murambi Genocide Memorial site in Gikongoro Province, southeastern Rwanda (file photo).

Many questions remain unanswered after reports that a German cultural foundation on Thursday launched a two year study to determine origins of about 1,000 skulls, mainly from Rwanda, brought to Germany from its former east African colonies.

According to Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany's international broadcaster, the skulls - 986 of which are from Rwanda - belong to east Africans taken to Berlin during the colonial era for racial "scientific" research.

Reports say majority of the skulls are marked as stemming from Germany's former East African colonies, including 986 from Rwanda, 41 from Tanzania, four from Burundi, with 54 others simply marked "East Africa".

"I knew about the skulls from Tanzania and Namibia but had never heard or read anything about skulls from Rwanda, being in Germany," Bernard Rutikanga, an academic who has taught African History for more than 30 years, told The New Times.

Rutikanga said that, for example, it is well documented that during the Maji Maji rebellion - an early rebellion to colonialism - which occurred between 1905 and 1907 in Tanzania, there is evidence that leaders who were resistant to colonial rule would be killed and their skulls taken to Germany for research.

One such leader, the historian said, was Chief Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga, best known as Chief Mkwawa, a Hehe tribal leader, who opposed German colonisation.

According to Rutikanga, the Rwandan aspect comes as "a surprise" especially as there was no such resistance against the Germans in Rwanda. More to that, he noted, during the World War one, "we fought on their side."

The question

"The question now is, were so many people just killed and their skulls taken or, what happened exactly? Did they get skulls from dead bodies? Under what circumstances had these people died then?

More than 900 skulls are so many," Rutikanga added.

The Germany broadcaster reported that the skulls are from a collection gathered in the early 20th Century by German doctor and anthropologist Felix von Luschan, who used them to study human development.

It reported that the collection of skulls was handed over to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in 2011 after the medical history museum at Berlin's Charite hospital was unable to maintain them.

Headquartered in Berlin, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, was established in 1957 by German Federal law to acquire and preserve the cultural legacy of the former State of Prussia.

The skulls are reportedly part of a larger collection von Luschan had obtained in the late 19th and early 20th century from various corners of the globe. German and international researchers reportedly plan to study the skulls and few remaining documents to determine their providence.

History books indicate that from 1905 to 1907, a broad alliance of ethnic groups rose against German colonial rule in east Africa and an estimated 100,000 locals died in the Maji-Maji rebellion.

In Rwanda, in 1908, a man only known as Basebya, led a rebellion against the German colonialists and was eventually captured and shot by the Germans in 1912.

But even then, Rutikanga said, "I doubt so many people died."

Rutikanga says that Rwandan academics are, without doubt, are interested knowing the historical facts concerning how hundreds of skulls from Rwanda got to Germany.

"We are following closely. We want to know where and when exactly did this happen, and much more."

If the origin of the skulls can be determined, it was reported, they may be sent back to their country of origin.

In the recent past, Germany handed back 20 skulls belonging to Namibia, where colonial soldiers bloodily put down an indigenous uprising in which tens of thousands died.

Integration of Rwandan researchers in fact finding

Amb. Igor Cesar, Rwanda's envoy to Germany, explained that, in November 2016 a German journalist approached the Embassy of Rwanda for an interview to comment on the finding that more than 1,000 Rwandan skulls were laying in the Prussian Cultural Foundation in Berlin.

Cesar said: "We then engaged with the Prussian Cultural Foundation which informed us that they were still in fact finding of the origin of the skulls they have under their custody."

"We then suggested that if they are still in the fact finding phase it would be important to involve Rwandan researchers in the process. The Foundation informed us that they did not have the funding for such a project yet. However, they agreed on the principle of joint collaborative research with Rwanda."

According to the diplomat, the Prussian Cultural Foundation secured initial funding from a private German foundation, the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

"On Thursday (last week) the official announcement of the collaborative project took place in Berlin. We as Embassy still emphasise the integration of Rwandan researchers in the fact finding project and that their involvement shall be in a meaningful way."

Cesar said that, by December, the project coordinator is expected to establish contact with a Rwandan research team.

Together, he said, the joint team will agree on the further collaborative steps to be taken.

"It is expected that the results of the fact finding will better guide us on actions to be taken. It is important to note that we are still at the beginning of trying to understand how these skulls came to Germany and the circumstances around them to be able to take any position on the way forward."

Amb. Robert Masozera, Director General of National Museums of Rwanda (INMR), said that "at the moment, we have left it to our embassy to closely follow up."

"We read about it in the newspapers but the Berlin museum has not contacted us directly. But we are happy to learn they are in contact with our embassy and we are also following closely," Masozera said.

Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is leading the project, is quoted as saying that they were still looking at the circumstances surrounding the origins of the skulls.

"And then, we will decide together with the origin countries what would be the appropriate way to resolve the issue," Parzinger said.

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