Germany DNA Study Links Colonial Skulls To Living Relatives

A sample marked at the time the skulls were taken away to be added to von Luschan's collectionImage: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

German researchers have matched the DNA in looted colonial-era skulls from East Africa with living descendants. The connection paves the way for the remains to be returned.

A Berlin museum said on Tuesday it had established a clear link between three skulls taken to Germany during the colonial era and living relatives in Tanzania.

The German capital's Museum of Prehistory and Early History carried out DNA analysis on hundreds of skulls with the aim of returning the remains to descendants.
Why is the research important?

Berlin's SPK museum authority said in a statement that it was the first time that DNA research had provided a clear link between such remains and living descendants.

"The relatives and the government of Tanzania will now be informed as soon as possible," the statement said.

Some 1,100 skulls were tested as part of a pilot study. They came from a collection of some 7,700 such objects that the SPK acquired from Berlin's Charite hospital in 2011.

Museum researchers gathered enough information on eight of the skulls to make a search for specific descendants viable, the SPK said. Saliva samples were taken from possible descendants.

A complete genetic match for one of the skulls was found with a man still alive today.

The skull was marked with the title "Akida" which already indicated that it belonged to a known senior adviser to Mangi Meli (1866-1900), a powerful leader of the Chagga people.

Scientists confirmed an almost complete match to other descendants of the Chagga people in two more of the eight skulls examined. A direct biological relationship in an unbroken paternal line is at least "probable" in these cases, they said.

"Finding a match like this is a small miracle and will probably remain a rare case even despite the most meticulous provenance research," said Hermann Parzinger, president of the SPK.
Why were the skulls in Germany?

The skulls are thought to have been pillaged from cemeteries and other burial sites during the time of the German Empire from 1871 to 1918. They were then taken to Germany for "scientific" studies that served to underpin racist ideas.

Many of the skulls had been collected by anthropologist and doctor Felix von Luschan when Germany was a colonial power in East Africa. Others were from a collection of the Charite hospital's former anatomical institute.

German East Africa covered present-day Burundi, Rwanda, mainland Tanzania and part of Mozambique.

The German Empire maintained colonies until its end. The largest were German East Africa, German South West Africa and Cameroon in West Africa, but there were also other areas, such as in the Pacific. After defeat in World War I, all colonies were ceded according to the provisions of the Versailles Treaty.