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DNA of Stolen African Skulls Matched Living Relatives

Berlin matches DNA from skulls stolen from African colonies to living relatives.
Berlin matches DNA from skulls stolen from African colonies to living relatives. Credit: mizmareck / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

A group of researchers in Berlin has successfully traced the living relatives of individuals whose remains were taken from Tanzania and transported to Germany for scientific experiments during the colonial period.

Since 2017, Berlin’s Museum of Prehistory and Early History has been diligently conducting research on approximately 1,100 skulls that had been removed from the region known as German East Africa at the time.

Direct connection found from DNA analysis

In a recent announcement, the museum revealed that DNA analysis has established a direct connection to living descendants in Tanzania. This breakthrough was described as a remarkable and inspirational discovery.

“The relatives and the government of Tanzania will now be informed as soon as possible,” stated the museum in an official statement.

Collection of remains of skulls

The collection of skulls, totaling approximately 7,700 in number, came into the possession of the museum in 2011 from Berlin’s Charité Hospital, according to the museum authority.

A significant portion of these skulls was originally assembled by Dr. Felix von Luschan, a doctor and anthropologist, during the era of German colonial rule.

It is believed that the remains were taken from cemeteries and various burial sites across the globe. They were then transported to Germany for what were deemed “scientific” experiments. German East Africa encompassed present-day Burundi, Rwanda, mainland Tanzania, and a portion of Mozambique.

The museum has reported that its researchers were able to compile sufficient information regarding eight of these skulls, warranting a dedicated effort to locate their particular descendants.

Examination of the skulls

Remarkably, the title “Akida,” inscribed on the newly found skull, indicated that it once belonged to a prominent adviser to Mangi Meli, a formidable leader of the Chagga ethnic group during the late 1800s.

The museum confirmed that the DNA sample obtained from this skull directly corresponded to a descendant of Akida.

Additionally, in the examination of the remaining seven skulls, there was an almost complete genetic match identified in two of them with descendants of the Chagga people. This finding adds to the growing understanding of the historical and ancestral connections preserved in these artifacts.

Hermann Parzinger, the president of the museum, remarked, “Finding a match like this is a small miracle and will probably remain a rare case even despite the most meticulous provenance research.”

Germany’s responsibility for the 20th century genocide

Over the last two decades, Germany has been increasingly engaged in discussions about the wrongdoings it committed during the colonial period.

In what historians often describe as the initial genocide of the 20th century, Germany bore responsibility for the mass killings of Indigenous Herero and Nama individuals in the region now known as Namibia, formerly German South West Africa.

Germany has taken steps to return skulls and other human remains to Namibia, which were previously transported to Berlin during that period. In 2021, Germany officially recognized its role in committing genocide in Namibia and pledged one billion euros in financial assistance to the descendants of the victims.

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