The skulls of our ancestors

I have just returned from visiting the US to locate human remains of our African ancestors in the storage vaults of museums. The heavy laboratory door swung open and I stood in the middle of that room face to face with more than 100 human skulls.

I felt completely overwhelmed by what was facing me at that moment in that room of the dead, but had to contain my emotions because I was there on a research visit to locate our people and verify that they were indeed present in the collection at the Pennsylvania Museum where Samuel George Morton, a physician “… accumulated 1 000 human skulls from around the world, a collection his friends described as the ‘American Golgotha’” to determine intellectual capacity.

From floor to ceiling in wooden display cases, skulls looked out at me with empty holes where their eyes once were, without their names but labelled with numbers, race designations and geographical locations.

I struggled to contain my emotions, as I knew the circumstances under which they became “specimens” were very political, often violent – they had died in wars or during acts of genocide or in prisons, were robbed from their graves or snatched from people who were known in life.

Indeed, Ciraj Rassool and Martin Legassick note that Felix von Luschan, deputy director of the Berlin Museum of Ethnology and a racial anthropologist, ordered the bones of a “Bushwoman” who had not died yet – “… there is a living, but she may die any day, a bushwoman whose bones have already been bespoken by Professor Von Luschan …” Von Luschan’s collection is held by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Later, in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian, I was very troubled to see the bones of five South Africans from Port Alfred, again nameless with handwritten labels on their skulls in India Ink which sinks into the bone, permanently marking them as a number, a K-word and the fact that they are from the Cape Colony, South Africa. I just paused and looked at them for a second with a sense of numbness within me.

Looking at my people, they are being brought to me in boxes and it felt as if they were begging me to take them home and that each time the door opens, they wish it is someone coming for them, hoping this is the day, the moment when they are finally free. I could hear the cries of our people and my only regret is that I came back to South Africa without them.

Until you see these individuals, when they are brought to you in plastic bags and boxes on a cold metal trolley of the anthropological department, you see the missing teeth, the disjointedness of their bodies, the missing fragments chipped off each time the bones are handled, the fine bone dust collecting in the plastic bags; until you see this – it will probably mean nothing, or just be another story.

This is the knowledge that most African people do not have; they do not know that these bones of their African ancestors are there. When you are exposed to this, the full gravity of the situation weighs upon you as you realise you are dealing with something much bigger than yourself, centuries-long colonial violations. In short, I had found myself in the centre of evidence of the colonial crime scene.

In the US I was given full access to the records and allowed to identify the remains of my African ancestors as a researcher and a descendant of these African diasporas, the same access that has not been granted to me back home by the University of Cape Town’s Department of Human Biology, the University of the Witwatersrand’s RA Dart Collection of Human Skeletons and Iziko Museums of South Africa’s “collection” of body casts of the Khoisan that were unethically modelled under the directorship of Louis Péringuey, a South African entomologist, in 1905/1906.

From the 1800s until now our ancestors’ remains have been subjected to processes of race “science”, compared with Europeans and orangutans. They have waited in the dark rooms with their bones piled into boxes for Africa to awake to call their names and retell their painful stories.

This is the time when the decolonisation of the colonial episteme and institutions of knowledge production has begun, when Africa’s critical gaze turns towards the Global North to seek historical justice through reparations and repatriation of her sons and daughters who were violently taken away from her. On foreign soil they wait, their bones cut to pieces and broken; enduring time and time again the violating hands of the men and women of the North, who are blind to ethical codes, cultural knowledge and therefore the crimes they commit in the pursuit of “science” to extract DNA samples to study human origins.

Scientists see the bones and human tissues as “research material” and “specimens” to be studied as opposed to giving the individuals the courtesy of burial and acknowledgment of the violations that were committed on their bodies. How long will these violations continue? When will our ancestors rest in peace? In our African context we bury our dead, we don’t study them.

How will Africa be fully free from the shackles of the colonial past when our ancestors’ human remains are still locked in colonial institutions, being studied by descendants of our oppressors? Do not make a mistake, this is happening in museums in South Africa and former colonies as well. We are still colonised as we have not freed the people who came before us; our fate is bound to theirs.

Why are we so polite in claiming our humanity from those who continue to violate not only the bodies of our ancestors, but ours too, by equating us with animals? It is a form of spiritual control to capture and hold the ancestors of vanquished communities and continue to disturb and violate them.

This type of domination allows for an unjustifiable assertion of economic and political power in Africa. In fact, it is a crime against humanity to deny the rights of others to exist.

These are the questions I took to the US to investigate the circumstances that led to the disappearance of these Africans and their reappearance in North America and Europe as “research material”.

These notions of racial othering and animalisation took place in the context of European colonisation – from Marco Polo visiting Zanzibar in 1294 into the Renaissance othering Africa to the 19th-century theories of evolution, where indigenous peoples were posited to be a “missing link” between the animal and the modern human world.

At the core of the continuum of “subhumanity”, institutionalised by the modern anthropological “science”, Dieckemann and Boden argue the idea of “race” combined physical and mental criteria and became much more (pseudo-) biologically elaborated than before, with “physical anthropological studies undertaken in a race for investigating the origin and history of mankind”.

Cranial studies in museums and universities focused on the differences between the races, commissioned to strategically position the Caucasian race at the top of the “human ladder” as the “gods of men” with somehow the divine birthright to determine the fate of the planet and how it should be governed, justifying colonialism by stripping human dignity from those deemed lesser beings in the “Great Chain of Being”. This was reinforced by public displays of African people with “emphasis often placed on their kinship with animals” which Bernth Lindfors notes was believed to set them apart from rational humans.

This reasoning became a foundation for “scientificised” discourse that suggested that black people were subhumans, which generated a rationale and “justification” for dispossession. Bernard Magubane notes “the wars of dispossession that ravaged the Cape Colony and spread to all southern Africa were premised on just such assumptions as anthropologists and other ‘scientists’ had laid down”. And “given the unspeakable atrocities that were being perpetrated against colonial subjects, anthropologists were, in fact, responsible for signing the death warrants of Africans, in general, and the Khoisan people in particular. It was left to the imperial army to deliver the coup de grace.”

In the age of social justice, what would it mean if one rejected the idea that these human skulls are mere “specimens” and “research material”, but evidence of a crime that was committed by museums? Would this understanding alter the way we look at museums today as institutions that require decolonial investigation?

Will the South Africa government and the rest of the continent through the African Union and the UN claim the freedom of their ancestors, whose remains are still being violated in museums, universities and scientific institutions? Would this mobilise the peoples of the continent and the African diaspora to speak in one voice and call for the repatriation of all African human remains that are still languishing on foreign soil? Will there be a Museum Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the truth about these disappeared persons?

- Kasibe is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Cape Town and a Chevening Scholar.