John Hirst: Australia's National Museum Set To Advance Aboriginals' Place In History

Roundup: Historians' Take

[John Hirst, a historian at La Trobe University in Melbourne, is deputy chairman of the National Museum of Australia council.]

There is a dark history to the collection of Aboriginal human remains. The collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries robbed recent graves and burial sites. Aborigines feared to die because of the prospect that their bones would not be properly interred but be taken off to museums and laboratories. Scientists measured Aboriginal skulls on live and dead bodies to demonstrate the alleged inferiority of the Aboriginal race.

The move to repatriate human remains is prompted by the very proper recognition that amends must be made for these barbarities. However, there is still a scientific interest in human remains, not to demonstrate racial difference but to understand the common story of the evolution and history of humankind.

With the advance in scientific inquiry, new discoveries can be made by the examination of human remains that have long been held in museums; and as techniques are further refined, yet more discoveries will be possible.

Robert Foley, the director of the Centre for Human Evolutionary studies at Cambridge University, writes: ''In the last decade alone it has become possible to extract DNA from ancient bone and thus, for the first time, be able to say something about prehistoric people's genetic make-up. Other new techniques allow us to reconstruct, through minute chemical traces, the way someone's diet may have changed as they grew, even to say how old they were when they were weaned.

''The history of human health and disease, as well as patterns of growth and diet, is etched in the skeletons that have been recovered from around the world.''

The movement of Aboriginal people to this continent and their survival here is a central part of the saga of the spread of humankind across the globe.
The museum is well placed to advance a new vision: that Aboriginal and settler societies constitute together the history of humankind on this continent; how both societies have used the land and have been shaped by it and how for better or worse it is the common inheritance of all who live here.

Viewed in this way, there is no prehistory of Australia; the Aboriginal human remains are fully part of Australian history, research into which is listed as one of the statutory functions of the museum.

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