Edinburgh University to return nine human skulls from Sri Lanka in repatriation ceremony

The skulls will be returned to the Vedda people in a ceremony.

By Elsa Maishman
Friday, 22nd November 2019, 6:00 am
Professor Tom Gillingwater with some aboriginal skulls from the collection.
Professor Tom Gillingwater with some aboriginal skulls from the collection.

Edinburgh University will return a set of nine human skulls to their homeland of Sri Lanka in a repatriation ceremony today.

The skulls, thought to be over 200 years old, were taken from their place of origin more than a century ago.

They will be presented to Wanniya Uruwarige, chief of the jungle-dwelling Vedda people, after anatomy researchers at the University agreed to the Vedda’s claim as the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka.

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Chief Wanniya Uruwarige will attend the presentation at the University’s Playfair Library in Vedda dress of a knee-length sarong and holding a traditional axe.

The Vedda plan to display the skulls in a collection that will showcase their history as traditional hunter-gatherers and forest-dwellers.

The Vedda have experienced major disruption to their way of life due to civil war and land loss, and researchers suggest that the traditional life of the group may not continue for more than two generations.

Chief Wanniya Uruwarige, said: “The dead are very important in Vedda society.

“Every year we hold a special ceremony to honour those who are no longer with us.

“Even though these remains have been in Edinburgh for many years, their spirits have remained with us in Sri Lanka.

“This reuniting of spirits and physical remains – for which I thank the University – is a very special moment for my people.”

Professor Tom Gillingwater, Chair of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, said: “We are delighted to welcome the Vedda tribespeople to Edinburgh and mark the return of their ancestral remains.

“Our vast and diverse collection is often used in research breakthroughs and teaching.

“We are pleased to be able to return these culturally-important artefacts to help ensure the Vedda’s legacy endures for generations to come.

The ceremony marks the end of a study by Anatomy researchers at Edinburgh University and researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Science of Human History in Germany, which confirmed the Vedda as Sri Lanka’s earliest inhabitants.

Edinburgh University has a 12,000-strong collection of anatomical remains on display at the Anatomical Museum.

They are now used for research into the history of genetics, diet and the movement of people.

This is the first major repatriation event held at the University since an ear bone was returned to the Ngarrindjeri indigenous people of Australia in 2008.

The bone had been taken from the British colony of Australia more than a hundred years previously.

Museums across the UK are facing requests for the return of treasures taken from their country of origin, including neanderthal skulls, pyramid stones and the remains of a giant sloth found in Chile.