Skulls taken as war trophies repatriated from Edinburgh to Taiwan

The University presented the skulls to dignitaries from the Mudan community in a formal handover ceremony.

Skulls taken as war trophies repatriated from Edinburgh University to Taiwan The University of Edinburgh

The remains of four tribal warriors killed nearly 150 years ago have been repatriated by the University of Edinburgh.

In a first of its kind repatriation of human remains to Taiwan, the University presented the skulls to dignitaries from the Mudan community – also known as the Botan tribe – in a formal handover ceremony at University of Edinburgh’s St. Cecilia’s Hall.

Before the formal transfer of the remains, University representatives joined the Mayor of the Mudan Township, alongside members of the Taipei Representative Office in UK and Council of Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan to take part in a traditional Paiwan service designed to honour the spirits of the deceased.

Once the skulls have returned directly to Taiwan, they will be temporarily placed in the National Museum of Prehistory until a permanent resting place is confirmed after consultation with the Mudan communities.

A delegation from the Mudan community visited the university as part of the repatriation ceremony.

Mudan is a township in the south of Taiwan predominantly populated by the Paiwan people, the second-largest indigenous group in Taiwan.

In an important chapter of Paiwan history, the four Mudan warriors were killed in 1874 during a battle with Japanese invaders to avenge the deaths of 54 sailors who were killed three years prior by the Paiwanese.

The sailors were ambushed after becoming shipwrecked in Taiwanese territory in what is now referred to as the ‘Mudan Incident’.

The understanding is that the four Mudan warriors were unlikely to have been the perpetrators of the original incident.

The skulls were thought to have been originally taken as war trophies by Japanese soldiers and were carried to Japan by an un-named US Navy officer who had accompanied the Japanese as a military advisor.

In the following 30 years, the skulls were in possession of Stuart Eldrige, a US doctor and skull collector living in Yokohama, and John Anderson, the first curator of the Indian Museum at Calcutta.

The skulls finally reached Edinburgh in 1907 after being given to the University’s Principal William Turner.

The University holds one of the largest and most historically significant collections of ancestral remains, notably skulls.

The majority of the skulls in Edinburgh’s collection were assembled by Turner and like many UK universities with anatomical collections, the skulls came from the British Empire’s colonies or through their global networks.

Human skulls were used in the study of anatomy and anthropology as well as the now discredited idea of phrenology. Popular in the UK and other parts of Europe in the colonial era, phrenology formulated racist theories of inferiority based on the shape and dimensions of a skull.

The University’s Anatomical Museum collections are now studied for research into the history of genetics, diets and the movement of people.

The University has a long history of repatriating remains and items from its collection and works with communities around the world to engage with its collections.

The first repatriation at the University took place over 75 years ago. Most recently, in 2019, nine skulls were returned after being taken from Sri Lanka during the British colonial period in the 1880s.

The University continues to examine ways to address its colonial legacy and the contemporary impact of its complex past. Alongside repatriations, the institution is undertaking a range of activity to review its past associations with the Transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and other aspects of race.

Professor Tom Gillingwater, Chair of Anatomy at University of Edinburgh, said: “This repatriation is a culmination of international cooperation between the University and the Taiwanese community.

“We are committed to addressing our colonial legacy and this repatriation is the latest action we have taken in line with our longstanding policy of returning items to appropriate representatives of the cultures from which they were taken.”

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