The Repatriation of Aboriginal Ancestral Remains
From the late-19th Century, researchers from the University of Adelaide actively studied and documented the lives of Aboriginal peoples and their customs in their community. In some cases, fieldtrips to communities or to urban redevelopment sites involved the removal of cultural items and human remains. These were kept as scientific collections by the Adelaide Medical School and the Adelaide Dental School.
Some of these collections remained at the University until they were relocated to the SA Museum for safekeeping through a formal repatriation program which began in 2017.
This University is one of many institutions now seeking to understand the ramifications of these practices and acknowledging the impact on Indigenous communities worldwide.
These FAQs provide information about the use of Aboriginal ancestral remains by University of Adelaide staff over many decades. Many people in our community will find the following information confronting, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The University of Adelaide is committed to working with our local Aboriginal communities, to reconcile the wrongs of the colonial past. This process has begun in collaboration with the South Australian Museum and the Aboriginal communities affected. A repatriation process is being conducted to return all ancestral remains and cultural artefacts to their communities of origin wherever possible. In committing to this process the University will be guided by Aboriginal communities, in acknowledgment of their tradition and authority.
The University of Adelaide is committed to a process based on equality, respect and healing.
Frequently asked questions
What has happened since the Aboriginal ancestral remains were relocated in 2017?
The University continues to work with the SA Museum and the SA Government to support the on-going engagement with Aboriginal communities being asked to consider the best approach for repatriation of their ancestral remains.
A repatriation program is one where communities are supported to make decisions about the the return of the remains of their ancestors. The program places Aboriginal communities at the centre of decision making about what to do with historical collections of Aboriginal ancestral remains and supports a community approach to repatriation.
Over recent years, arrangements for Kaurna ancestral remains to be returned to Country have been progressed in consultation with the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation and other members of the community.
An important milestone in this project occurred in December 2021 when the Kaurna Implementation Reference Group scheduled the first repatriation and reburial ceremony at the community designed Wangayarta Memorial and Resting Place located at the Smithfield Memorial Park.
The University acknowledges and appreciates the commitment and dedication of the Kaurna community in reaching this significant milestone.
Why were Aboriginal ancestral remains collected by the University?
From the late-19th Century, academics from the University of Adelaide actively studied Aboriginal communities and culture. These ethnographic studies observed and documented the lives of Aboriginal peoples and their customs in their community.
University academics collaborated with researchers from other major South Australian institutions, such as the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the South Australian Museum, to arrange fieldtrips to carry out these studies throughout the State and other places in Australia.
In some cases, fieldtrips involved the collection of human remains and cultural items. Ancestral remains were generally removed from their original burial locations through excavation or inadvertent discovery.
Aboriginal ancestral remains were taken back to institutions and used for research and teaching activities. Over subsequent decades, many parts of these collections were moved between research institutions in Australia or overseas by individual scholars or as part of research collaborations. In recent years, some of the ancestral remains have been returned to Australia and to their communities as a part of repatriation programs. Some of these collections remained at the University until recently when they were relocated to the SA Museum for safekeeping.
What sort of remains were collected?
Ancestral human remains include the whole or part of human skeletons, individual bones or fragments of bone.
Where did these Aboriginal ancestral remains come from?
There are limited specific records about these collections so in many cases it can be difficult to determine where each of the ancestral remains came from.
In 2018, a forensic and archival assessment was conducted by experienced staff at the South Australian Museum to identify the likely community of origin, or region, of those ancestral remains held by the University.
The origin of about one-third of the individual ancestral remains was identified by this assessment. Most were from South Australian communities. The majority of those were ancestors of the Kaurna people.
Efforts to find out more about the origin of the other remains will continue.
What were Aboriginal ancestral remains used for?
Aboriginal ancestral remains were held as a part of scientific collections by the Adelaide Medical School and the Adelaide Dental School. Students at the University were able to use the collections to learn about human physiology.
When did that practice cease?
It is possible that Aboriginal ancestral remains were being used in the curriculum and for research purposes until the 1980s.
It is now understood that the keeping and use of Aboriginal ancestral remains for research and teaching is entirely inappropriate.
It is important to understand that the use of human remains for scientific purposes has always been an integral part of teaching and research programs at the University. However, this is now done very differently and is strictly regulated under South Australian law.
A Body Donation program has operated at the University for more than 100 years to ensure our medical and dental students receive world-class training and researchers can continue to advance medical knowledge and techniques. This Program relies on the generosity of individuals who gift their bodies to science and its operation is governed by the Transplantation and Anatomy Act 1983 (SA).
The University now understands that the Aboriginal ancestral remains in our care were not subject to the same levels of ethical scrutiny. It is acknowledged that their collection in the first place, and subsequent use, was without consent. Nor was it conducted with recognition of the impact this has had on Aboriginal communities.
How many remains of individual Aboriginal ancestors were collected by the University?
The University does not know exactly how many Aboriginal ancestral remains were collected by the University researchers over the period.
The partial remains of approximately 450 Aboriginal ancestors were identified when the Adelaide Medical School and Adelaide Dental School were relocated from the main North Terrace campus to the new Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences building in 2017.
What has happened to the Aboriginal ancestral remains that were at the University of Adelaide?
In 2017, the University arranged for these ancestral remains to be relocated to a secure facility managed by the South Australian Museum called the Keeping Place.
The Museum cares for almost 5000 ancestral remains, gathered since the settlement of South Australia from Australian Aboriginal communities and from other first nation communities overseas.
The transfer of the Aboriginal ancestral remains from the University was conducted with the support and guidance of the South Australian Aboriginal Heritage Unit, a Government unit which administers the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA).
What will now happen to ancestral remains?
The intention is that each ancestor should be returned to Country where possible.
As a part of the process, Aboriginal communities are asked to consider how they would like to conduct the repatriation of the ancestral remains in accordance with their cultural and community requirements.
The University has partnered with the South Australian Museum to implement a staged program of repatriation of individual ancestral remains where a community connection has been identified. This is guided by the Museum’s Management of Ancestral Remains and Burial Goods Policy.
The repatriation program focuses on engaging with Aboriginal communities and discussing what has happened to their ancestors’ remains and why. The University has funded a Project Officer position at the Museum to support this consultation.
Until the communities have made decisions about repatriation, ancestral remains will continue to be securely stored at the South Australian Museum’s Keeping Place.
The South Australian Museum is one of eight museums funded under the Commonwealth Indigenous Repatriation Museum Grants Program to consult with Aboriginal communities about the repatriation of the ancestral remains and sacred objects that have been held in museum collections. This will be a long-term project for the Museum.
The SA Government is also supporting this important South Australian project.
Are there other collections of important cultural and historical significance held within the University, and what is being done to ensure their protection, curation and repatriation into the future?
The University holds many individual items within its special collections, some of which have significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This includes artefacts given to researchers or materials which were prepared by those researchers to document or record the lives and activities of Indigenous people.
The University adopts collection management practices that recognise the rights of Aboriginal people to be consulted about the interpretation and curation of significant artefacts or records.
National and international protocols are observed to ensure the safe-keeping of culturally significant materials and to allow access to these collections where possible.
The University intends to consult with Aboriginal communities about the repatriation of culturally significant artefacts and other items held.
What is the University’s current position on these historical practices?
The University deeply regrets the situation that now confronts the current generation of Aboriginal leaders and the decisions their communities will be asked to make about the return of their ancestors’ remains. The University will be informed by the decisions made by these communities as to what happens next.
The University supports the South Australian Museum’s approach to repatriation and is committed to a process which is transparent and honest with the Aboriginal communities affected and with the South Australian community generally.
This history of collecting ancestral remains for scientific study is not confined to South Australia and the inappropriate use of ancestral remains has been documented at universities and other institutions around the world.
This University is one of many institutions now fully understanding the ramifications of these practices, acknowledging the damaging effect they have had on Indigenous communities worldwide, and working to address the practices of the past.
The University regrets these past practices, and regrets not engaging candidly with this history until now.
We know the issue is confronting to students, staff and the community, and regret that it has impacted adversely on Aboriginal communities and individuals.
In making this acknowledgement, we also recognise that it does not undo the wrongs of the past, nor remove the need for healing processes.
The University also recognises these historical practices have imposed an unwelcome burden on Aboriginal communities and that the discussions and decisions that are required are difficult and disturbing.
What does the University do today to be inclusive of, and proactive for, the Aboriginal community?
By talking openly about the attitudes and wrongdoings of the past, the University accepts this as a part of its institutional history. Today, the University works together with Aboriginal communities, and with Aboriginal staff and students, to shape the future.
Our Reconciliation Action Plan, Yangadlitya (For the future), sets out in detail what we have committed to doing in years to come to advance Aboriginal education, culture and knowledge.
The University is focused on increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation and success; undertaking more informed and effective teaching and learning practices, conducting research in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and looking to build on our Aboriginal supply chain. The University is providing an environment for discussion and action regarding issues that advance the status, recognition and lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The University is proud to have 103 staff and 350 students of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage dispersed across all business areas of the University and within all faculties. These individuals join and remain with our institution because of our common goal: to be a place of opportunity and learning.
Our ambition is to foster an enlightened and tolerant community where students can find support whatever their background or circumstances; and as a place where the Kaurna people, the original custodians of the land on which the campuses now rest, are acknowledged and their culture respected.
The University has developed Tarrkarri Tirrka (Future Learning), an integrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education strategy, the first of its kind in setting a clear strategy for Indigenous education, research and employment. It includes an empowerment framework, which is a shift away from a deficit narrative and towards Aboriginal peoples own definition of success.
Enabling empowerment is the recognition, inclusion and representation of Aboriginal people and perspectives in every part of the university life and decision making. This strategy has reached its mid-point and has been revised and endorsed for another five years.
Our Reconciliation Action Plan, Yangadlitya (For the future), was released in September 2019. This plan sets out in detail what the University commits to doing in years to come to advance access to Indigenous education, culture and knowledge and incorporate this knowledge across the curriculum.
In 2020 our new Kaurna Learning Circle and the new River Entrance to campus, Karra Wirra Parinangku, with Wangu Poles was opened. Together with a soon-to-be-developed Kaurna Walk, these features on our North Terrace campus will celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence and showcase Kaurna culture.
A new Aboriginal Research Plan, Yurlinganindi (Deep Listening), and an Aboriginal Employment Plan Martanthi (Imagine), are in development for future release.
What support is available?
The University of Adelaide understands that this issue is confronting. Students and staff may wish to discuss the impact this has had on them through a counselling service.
The University of Adelaide support staff and their families by providing access to two Employee Assistance Program service providers, offering a choice of providers and locations across Adelaide.
Student Life Counselling Support is free, confidential and available to all enrolled students seeking to address issues that may be affecting their study and life.
The University’s Cultural Advisers are also available to discuss a range of Aboriginal matters and provide culturally appropriate support to all students and staff of the university. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nunkuwarrin Yunti is a GP service which offers counselling and a service called Linkup that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to connect with their family. Phone: +61 (0)8 8406 1600.
Contact for further information