LONDON – A Tasmanian aboriginal group is suing Britain's Museum of Natural History to keep it from conducting tests on bones, teeth and skulls taken from the island, saying Monday that the experiments would desecrate the corpses.
The museum agreed last year to return the bones — mostly obtained during the 1940s — to Australia, but indicated it wanted first to run tests on them, as they represented some of the few remaining pieces of objective data about the region's original inhabitants.
Tasmanians were almost completely exterminated after the 19th-century arrival of white settlers to their island. Out of a population of 4,000, only 200 remained in the 1830s, and the last full-blooded Tasmanian died in 1876. Those who remain today are of mixed descent.
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The Tasmanian Aboriginal Center, which has been awarded custody of the remains, said any tests on the bones would defile the remains of victims of genocide.
"They would never dare to do these experiments to the human remains of Jews or Roma or Scots or Manx Islanders," the center's lawyer, Michael Mansell, said in a statement. "They intend to mutilate our ancestors without our consent."
The museum said would meet with the aboriginal group, but that it would continue to fight the suit, which goes to court on Thursday.
The museum wants to measure, photograph, X-ray and make casts of the bones, along with drilling and shaving off microscopic bits of material from the teeth and skulls to extract genetic material.
The group from Tasmania, a southern island state of Australia, questioned whether the experiments would yield any useful information.
"The Natural History Museum's tests were 'genetic prospecting' which would desecrate the spiritual beliefs of the community from whom the skulls and bones were taken by grave robbery," Mansell said.
Aboriginals believe a soul is in torment unless the body rests in its native land.
The museum has acknowledged that the remains, drawn from 17 individuals, were either looted or taken coercively, but said the aboriginal demands should be weighed against the scientific value of the bones.
"We see the strength of both the (aboriginal) view and the scientific view, and the decision (to conduct tests) is aimed to meet the primary interests of both groups," museum spokesman Claudine Fontana said. "We will be returning these remains permanently, and it is only the information about them that we will keep."
The Natural History Museum has a collection of almost 20,000 human remains, taken from all over the world and dating back 500,000 years. Most were taken from Britain.
Australia's government has backed the aboriginals' argument.
In a letter addressed to the museum and to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian High Commissioner Richard Alston said Friday that the issue was "already causing considerable distress in the community of origin of the remains," and urged a negotiated settlement.
The return of indigenous bones has proven contentious in the United States, where the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required all federally funded museums and institutions to return any Native American remains and spiritual objects that could be traced back to Indian nations.
Disputes over the Kennewick Man and the Spirit Cave Man, 9,000 and 10,600 years old respectively, have pitted U.S. archaeologists against American Indian tribes in legal battles.