Mummified heads of Māori ancestors returned to New Zealand from Germany

Germany has returned six mummified Māori heads to New Zealand, together with the remains of almost 100 Māori and Moriori ancestors.

The New Zealand Museum Te Papa Tongarewa, which works to preserve the country’s heritage and cultures, held a private repatriation ceremony on Wednesday to mark the return of the remains from seven different German museums.

The relics are a dark reminder of how the body parts of indigenous people were swapped and sold in a grisly, exploitative trade, not just in Germany, but around the world.

In Māori culture, the head was considered the most important part of the body. The face was marked with tattoos to designate identity and status, according to the Smithsonian magazine.

New Zealand enacted a government program called Karanga Aotearoa in 1990 to retrieve and repatriate the remains of its indigenous people, the country’s Māori, and the Moriori who inhabit the Chatham Islands.

Back in 2016, the Smithsonian Institution returned the remains of 54 indigenous people, including four mummified Māori heads, to Te Papa. Other institutions that have repatriated relics via the museum include London’s Natural History Museum and the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

The latest repatriation involved the skeletal remains of 95 ancestors of both peoples, together with six mummified tattooed Māori heads. They were returned by seven German institutions: the Grassi Museum in Leipzig; Reiss Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim; Linden Museum in Stuttgart; the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History; Georg August University in Göttingen; Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim and Museum Wiesbaden.

Te Papa Tongarewa oversees the repatriation on behalf of New Zealand’s government. “The single goal of repatriation is not to hold the remains at Te Papa indefinitely but to return them to their communities,” the museum says on its website.

Māori and Moriori believe this return to their homelands will restore dignity to both the dead people and their living descendants.

The mummified heads—often of chiefs or warriors—were part of a Māori tradition to preserve loved ones or reviled enemies, according to Te Papa.

When Western explorers arrived, they became increasingly curious about the mummified heads, according to the museum.

Wednesday’s ceremony followed a series of formal handover events in Germany throughout May and June.

The move by Germany offers “pathways to meaningful reconciliation and healing,” according to Arapata Hakiwai, Te Papa’s Māori co-leader.

Te Herekiekie Haerehuka Herewini, Te Papa’s head of repatriation, said: “Our colleagues from these German institutions have shown significant respect and understanding towards Aotearoa New Zealand, Māori and Moriori, and demonstrated a strong sense of doing the right thing.”

Three of the heads, known as toi moko, were repatriated from the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums.

“The toi moko became sought-after trade goods in the 18th and 19th centuries. Two of the heads kept in the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums probably arrived in Mannheim via this route and various stations.

“Research suggests that the third head is the remains of a tribal leader who traveled to Europe and died here. His head was therefore not mummified in the traditional way, but probably by a taxidermist in Europe.”

Among those to attend the private ceremony at the museum in Wellington was New Zealand’s Ambassador to Germany, Craig Hawke, who also attended the handover ceremonies in Germany.

Ahead of the event, he tweeted: “The ancestral remains will be received at @Te_Papa next Wednesday. On their journey back home to #Aotearoa to find their final resting places, we bid them farewell: ‘Kia hora te marino, kia whakapapa pounamu te moana, kia tere te kārohirohi i mua i tō huarahi.’ #repatriation

“English translation: ‘May peace be widespread, may the sea glisten like greenstone, and may the shimmer of light guide you on your way.’ #arohanui.”

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