More than just an object. A material analysis of the return en retention of Namibian skulls from Germany

This book is based on Leonor Faber-Jonker’s Research Master's thesis 'More than just an object: A material analysis of the return and retention of Namibian skulls from Germany', runner-up in the African Studies Centre, Leiden's 2016 Africa Thesis Award. This annual award for Master's students encourages student research and writing on Africa and promotes the study of African cultures and societies.

In September 2011 twenty Namibian skulls were repatriated from the collection of the Charité university hospital in Berlin. The remains had been in Germany for more than a hundred years: they belonged to victims of the 'German-Herero war' (1904-1908) in German South-West Africa, a genocide that cost the lives of eighty per cent of the Herero and half the Nama population. The majority of the skulls had arrived in Berlin as preserved heads, and all had been used for scientific race research in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Despite the triumphant return of the skulls, not everything went smoothly. The Charité was criticized for failing to answer questions about the identity of the remains, and the Namibian government and Nama and Herero representatives failed to agree on their final resting place. This had everything to do with the complicated nature of the skulls involved. Faber-Jonker analyses how these human remains – remains of individuals – became war trophies, anthropological specimens, and, finally, evidence, symbols, and relics, by examining how, by whom, why, and in what context the skulls were physically handled in the practices of collecting (1904-1910), studying (1910-1924), and repatriating (2011).

Year of publication: 2018
Series: African Studies Collection
Volume: 70



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Leonor Faber-Jonker
African Studies Centre