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Govt wades into Aboriginal remains row -

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Govt wades into Aboriginal remains row

Reporter: Jocelyn Nettlefold

KERRY O'BRIEN: A British Museum is at the centre of an international legal battle over its right to
conduct scientific tests on its collection of Tasmanian Aboriginal remains, dating back more than a
century. Tomorrow, Britain's High Court will rule whether the London Natural History Museum can
proceed with tests on the remains, before they are returned to Tasmania for traditional burial.
Late today, the Federal Government announced that it will also be represented at the hearing. The
Aboriginal community says any testing would violate their ancestral spirits and last week they
gained a temporary injunction to stop the research. The museum argues that would deprive scientists
of the chance to discover more about a critical chapter in human history. Jocelyn Nettlefold
reports.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: For thousands of years, Tasmania's original inhabitants laid their dead in
coastal burial grounds. In the fledgling colony of Van Diemen's Land, Aboriginal remains,
particularly bones and teeth, were eagerly sought as scientific curiosities or simply souvenirs.

MICHAEL MANSELL, TASMANIAN ABORIGINAL CENTRE: They were effectively grave-robbed. People dug them
up so that they could donate them to institutions overseas.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Some of the remains wound up here at London's Natural History Museum, which is
now at the centre of an international legal battle, pitting ancient cultural beliefs against the
principle of scientific inquiry.

PROFESSOR ROBERT FOLEY, EVOLUTIONARY ANTHROPOLOGIST: To see any of it lost and gone forever is, to
my mind, a very sad and tragic event.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: The museum holds the remains of 17 Indigenous Tasmanians, most of them
unidentified. Records show that one of the skulls in the collection is from a woman shot dead by a
white settler and later decapitated. After fighting for recognition and acceptance at home,
descendents of the original Tasmanians started lobbying for ancestral remains to be returned from
museums and scientific institutions around the world. In 1990, they were the first Indigenous
people in Australia to do so, lawyer Michael Mansell proudly returning from Dublin with the head of
an Aboriginal man named Shiny, which had been pickled in whisky.

MICHAEL MANSELL: Unless we carry out the traditional ceremony, we can't rejoin the spirit that has
been disturbed from the body of the dead.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: An agreement between John Howard and British Prime Minister Tony Blair paved
the way for more remains to be repatriated from the UK. Last year, the Natural History Museum
agreed to surrender its Tasmanian bones, but not before a final round of data collection.

DR MICHAEL DIXON, LONDON NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM: They tell a very interesting story about human
evolution and the evolution of Tasmanian Aboriginals themselves.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Ignoring appeals from the community and Australia's High Commissioner to
London, Richard Alston, the museum's scientists starting testing in December, well ahead of its
original schedule.

MICHAEL MANSELL: The people at the British Natural History Museum are a bunch of cultural vandals
who couldn't care less about Aboriginal cultural and traditional and spiritual beliefs.

ROBERT FOLEY: It is not a simple issue. We are not dealing with people's parents or grandparents.
We are dealing with people who died 150 years ago and, in some cases, died many years before that.

MARK STEPHENS, SOLICITOR: They've extracted some teeth from a skeleton, and also dismantled a
skeleton.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Armed with a landmark ruling from Tasmania's Supreme Court granting the
community control over its cultural property, solicitor Mark Stephens and human rights barrister
Geoffrey Robertson QC went to the English High Court last week. They secured an injunction
preventing the museum from any further testing on the remains ahead of Thursday's hearing.

MARK STEPHENS: Virtually all other museums who have held Aboriginal remains have returned them
voluntarily, without further desecration. As an Englishman, I have to say that I'm appalled and
embarrassed at the wicked behaviour of the Natural History Museum. It seems to me imperious British
behaviour at its worst.

ROBERT FOLEY: I think they are enormously important, they're very valuable and part of it is the
idea that really we want to have an understanding of the whole of human history.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: The museum won't comment on the legal battle, but scientists like Robert Foley,
a professor of human evolution based at Cambridge, fear a High Court ruling against the museum
would set a legal precedent, restraining anthropological research worldwide. He says tests on
skeletal material can open remarkable windows on the past few hundred years, from what people ate
to where people came from.

ROBERT FOLEY: The techniques are changing all the time. I mean, just in the last two years,
techniques have been developed which have massively increased the ability to take DNA out of bone.
If it goes now, then the techniques that will be developed in the next few years, which would allow
us perhaps to reconstruct entire genomes, will be gone.

BOB WEATHERALL, REPATRIATION ADVISER: Aboriginal people are really anguished over knowing that the
remains have been taken away without the consent of the deceased.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Bob Weatherall is a key Indigenous leader who was involved in the British
negotiations and several international handbacks. He believes, if the Tasmanian Aboriginal
community loses this test case, Aborigines around Australia face losing control over the fate of
more than 10,000 other ancestral remains in Europe and the US.

BOB WEATHERALL: It will be still subject to further scientific investigations, where there will be
no benefits to the peoples of the world or directly to Aboriginal people.

ROBERT FOLEY: That can give us genetic information, so we can link that up to the physical
information; again, to say something about population history, population size and so on. So the
range of information is enormous.

MARK STEPHENS: It may enable one scientist at the Natural History Museum to write an extra paper,
but it's not going to not contribute to sum total of human knowledge, it's not going to prevent
disease. It's not going to do anything which is going to be otherwise irreplaceable to science and,
in those circumstances, there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for this mawkish examination by
scientists.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: If Australia loses its High Court case, lawyers plan to take the battle over
the bones to the European Court of Human Rights. An elder from the Tasmanian community and activist
Bob Weatherall are travelling to London for the ruling. They hope to bring home untested remains
for traditional burial.

BOB WEATHERALL: To have the ancestors come back home and place them in their final resting place,
to have the ceremony that they rightfully deserve, Aboriginal people will just feel whole again.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Jocelyn Nettlefold with that report.