UK university returns tribal warrior skulls to Taiwan after more than 100 years

University of Edinburgh has handed over the skulls which were taken as war trophies by Japanese soldiers

Tom Gillingwater of Edinburgh University in the room where the skulls of four Taiwanese tribal warriors had been kept. PA
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The skulls of four tribal warriors killed nearly 150 years ago have been returned by a UK university to a Taiwan indigenous community in a move hailed as a “milestone of transitional justice”.

The skulls were taken as war trophies by Japanese soldiers who invaded southern Taiwan in 1874 and fought the Paiwan people. They were then passed on to the University of Edinburgh in 1907.

It was the first international repatriation of ancestral remains for Taiwan's indigenous community, according to the island's Council of Indigenous Peoples.

The repatriation was “rich with historical meaning and is an important milestone of transitional justice for indigenous peoples”, the council said in a statement.

Council minister Icyang Parod said he hoped the community could find solace and healing from the repatriation.

He said academic institutions and museums should work together to reflect on historical injustices and foster recognition of indigenous peoples' rights.

The skulls will be placed in Taiwan's National Museum of Prehistory pending the Mudan community's decision on a permanent resting place.

The remains belonged to four warriors from Mudan township, which is predominantly populated by the Paiwan people, the second-largest indigenous group in Taiwan, according to the university.

The skulls were taken to Japan by a US Navy officer who had accompanied the Japanese as a military adviser in the 1874 conflict, and were eventually given to University of Edinburgh Principal William Turner in 1907.

The repatriation request was made by Taiwan's Council of Indigenous Peoples in November 2021 and was granted the following July.

A traditional Paiwan service to honour the dead was held before the remains were transferred in a formal handover ceremony on Friday.

Tom Gillingwater, chair of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, said the repatriation was the result of co-operation between the university and the Taiwanese community.

“We are committed to addressing our colonial legacy and this repatriation is the latest action we have taken in line with our long-standing policy of returning items to appropriate representatives of the cultures from which they were taken,” he said.

Updated: November 04, 2023, 12:57 PM