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Khoisan skeletons to be returned home
12 October 2018 | Story Kim Cloete. Photos Je’nine May. Video Evan Zerf. Read time 7 min.
The University of Cape Town (UCT) is working with the community of Sutherland in the Northern Cape to return to their descendants the skeletal remains of nine people, believed to have been Khoisan people captured and forced to become farm labourers in the 1800s.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said the university had discovered that its skeletal collection in the Faculty of Health Sciences included 11 skeletons that were obtained unethically in the 1920s.
The very limited documentation for the skeletons indicates that they are of people who died in the 19th century. At least nine of them were probably Khoisan people who had been captured and forced to work on a farm in Sutherland, in the Northern Cape.
The skeletons appear to have been removed from their resting place by the owner of the Kruis Rivier farm in the 1920s, and sent to the university.
During a media briefing this week, Phakeng said the university had been shocked by the discovery of “this shameful chapter” in its history, and had put in place a collaborative process to make some form of amends for what had happened.
“While we know from our work with the national government that many skeletons of South Africans in the 19th century were treated similarly, there is as yet no precedent for returning skeletons to their places of origin. Therefore we met with the families to ask for their advice and assistance,” she explained.
“It was a big shock at first. But I am very relieved. I was also very happy to realise that there are people who care.”
Dr Victoria Gibbon, from the Department of Human Biology in the Division of Clinical Anatomy and Biological Anthropology who manages the UCT Human Skeletal Collection, said she was prompted to do an analysis of UCT’s collections and records following a discussion on ethical procurement of human remains at a national symposium on human remains management at Iziko Museums in 2017.
Examples of unethical procurement include someone from the public excavating or digging up a burial site and bringing the remains to the university.