Skip to main content

Repatriation of Human Remains: History

Resources for facilitating the return of ancestral remains and examining the issue from a critical historical perspective

Looted Histories

The repatriation of human remains is not an exclusive domain of decolonization studies. However, the vast majority of funerary material today that does not belong to the ancestors of the deceased is a direct result of colonial expropriation and the mindsets that accompanied it. The flow of tangible culture from source communities to contemporary housing of permanent storage and display perfectly mirrors that routes of resource extraction that occurred during the height of European imperialism, an approximately three hundred year period.

The objectification of bodies and cultures in colonial life is most obviously reproduced today through a continuing inequality of standards on what is and is not acceptable treatment for both sacred and funerary artifacts. This remains one of the most tangible examples of how imperialism survives in the ostensibly postcolonial world, and underlies the importance of ensuring the rights of communities of origin in allowing them the autonomy to determine the appropriate use and viewing of their material culture.

Search Keywords

  • Ancestral Remains
  • Funerary Objects
  • Unassociated Funerary Objects
  • Objects of Legal Property
  • Colonialism
  • Expropriation
  • Extractive Research
  • Desiderata
  • Wunderkammern


     German Soldiers package Herero remains for shipment to Berlin, 1906. Image via Modern Ghana

Who Owns the Past?

still from a 60 Minutes segment played in Who Owns the Past?

Who Owns the Past? is a 56-minute documentary produced in 2000 that relates the story of the Kennewick Man, human remains recovered in Washington in 1996 and embroiled in a legal battle after the Umatilla people filed a NAGPRA claim for the repatriation of the bones.

Selected Articles