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Skulls and skeletons from Namibia in Berlin

Results of the Charité Human Remains Project

Holger Stoecker and Andreas Winkelmann

From 2010 to 2013 the Charité Human Remains Project researched the provenance of the remains of fifty-seven men and women from the then colony of German South West Africa. They were collected during German colonial rule, especially but not only during the colonial war 1904–8. The remains were identified in anthropological collections of academic institutions in Berlin. The article describes the history of these collections, the aims, methods and interdisciplinary format of provenance research as well as its results and finally the restitutions of the remains to Namibia in 2011 and 2014.

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Re-individualising human remains from Namibia

Colonialism, grave robbery and intellectual history

Larissa Förster, Dag Henrichsen, Holger Stoecker and Hans Axasi╪Eichab

In 1885, the Berlin pathologist Rudolf Virchow presented three human skeletons from the colony of German South West Africa to the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory. The remains had been looted from a grave by a young German scientist, Waldemar Belck, who was a member of the second Lüderitz expedition and took part in the occupation of colonial territory. In an attempt to re-individualise and re-humanise these human remains, which were anonymised in the course of their appropriation by Western science, the authors consult not only the colonial archive, but also contemporary oral history in Namibia. This allows for a detailed reconstruction of the social and political contexts of the deaths of the three men, named Jacobus Hendrick, Jacobus !Garisib and Oantab, and of Belck’s grave robbery, for an analysis of how the remains were turned into scientific objects by German science and institutions, as well as for an establishment of topographical and genealogical links with the Namibian present. Based on these findings, claims for the restitution of African human remains from German institutions cannot any longer be regarded as a contemporary phenomenon only but must be understood as part of an African tradition of resistance against Western colonial and scientific practices.

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Imperial skulduggery, science and the issue of provenance and restitution

The fate of Namibian skulls in the Alexander Ecker Collection in Freiburg

Reinhart Kößler

This article explores the history of the Alexander Ecker Collection and situates it within the larger trajectory of global collecting of human remains during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is then linked to the specific context of the genocide in then German South West Africa (1904–8), with the central figure of Eugen Fischer. The later trajectory of the collection leads up to the current issues of restitution. The Freiburg case is instructive since it raises issues about the possibilities and limitations of provenance research. At the same time, the actual restitution of fourteen human remains in 2014 occurred in a way that sparked serious conflict in Namibia which is still on-going four years later. In closing, exigencies as well as pressing needs in connection with the repatriation and (where possible) rehumanisation of human remains are discussed.

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Human remains of Ovaherero and Nama

Transnational dynamics in post-genocidal restitutions

Elise Pape

Taking its starting point from a socio-anthropological study combining biographical interviews, semi-structured interviews and ethnographic observations collected between 2016 and 2018 in Germany, France and the United States among Ovaherero and Nama activists, and also members of different institutions and associations, this article focuses on the question of human remains in the current struggle for recognition and reparation of the genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama from a transnational perspective. First, the text shows the ways in which the memory of human remains can be considered as a driving force in the struggle of the affected communities. Second, it outlines the main points of mismatches of perspective between descendants of the survivors and the responsible museums during past restitutions of human remains from German anthropological collections. Third, the article more closely examines the resources of Ovaherero in the United States in the struggle for recognition and reparation, the recent discovery of Namibian human remains in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the questions that it raises.

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The homecoming of Ovaherero and Nama skulls

Overriding politics and injustices

Vilho Amukwaya Shigwedha

In October 2011, twenty skulls of the Herero and Nama people were repatriated from Germany to Namibia. So far, fifty-five skulls and two human skeletons have been repatriated to Namibia and preparations for the return of more skulls from Germany were at an advanced stage at the time of writing this article. Nonetheless, the skulls and skeletons that were returned from Germany in the past have been disappointingly laden with complexities and politics, to such an extent that they have not yet been handed over to their respective communities for mourning and burials. In this context, this article seeks to investigate the practice of ‘anonymising’ the presence of human remains in society by exploring the art and politics of the Namibian state’s memory production and sanctioning in enforcing restrictions on the affected communities not to perform, as they wish, their cultural and ritual practices for the remains of their ancestors.

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Open Access (free)

Caroline Fournet, Benoit Pouget and Jean-Marc Dreyfus

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Leslie C. Green

The practice of distinguishing between those wounded or sick in land and sea warfare resulted in the adoption of distinct Conventions at Geneva in 1949, but Protocol I, 1977, deals with the wounded, sick and shipwrecked collectively. For other prisoners of war, the Conventions relating to the care of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked are under the scrutiny of the Protecting Power and do not detract from the general humanitarian activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In a land engagement, agreement may be reached between opposing commanders for the exchange, removal and transport of the wounded in the field. Whenever possible, similar arrangements should be made for the removal of the wounded and sick by land or sea from any besieged or encircled area and for the passage of medical personnel or chaplains proceeding to such an area.

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Leslie C. Green

The concept of war crimes, with trial and condemnation of those committing them, is not new. From the time of the 'classical' fathers until the end of the nineteenth century there is little to comment upon with regard to the law concerned with war crimes. This was until the promulgation of the Lieber Code in 1863 by US President Abraham Lincoln. While international law permits national tribunals to try war criminals, these tribunals are established under national law according to the jurisdictional limits and procedure established by that law, although the definition of war crimes is usually that prescribed by international law. Many of the crimes described in the London Charter as war crimes or crimes against humanity are synonymous with those named as grave breaches in the Geneva Conventions and Protocol I.

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Leslie C. Green

The overriding purpose of the United Nations is the preservation of peace. When states have agreed to second forces to the United Nations either for enforcement or for peacekeeping activities, they do so through agreements which specify the administrative, financial and disciplinary arrangements that are to apply, although supreme authority rests with the Secretary General. While the decisions of the Security Council are legally binding upon all members, it must be borne in mind that the Council is made up of the representatives of the member states, who act according to instructions received from their governments. Even with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the problems which confront the United Nations, including command, discipline, rules of engagement and the like, are of equal significance. In both the former Yugoslavia, especially in relation to Kosovo, and in Afghanistan, NATO took over the military operations against the 'terrorists'.