Tainan/Edinburgh, Nov. 7 (CNA) Four tribal warrior skulls found peace at last in Tainan’s Museum of Archeology on Monday after being repatriated from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
The skulls, from the Indigenous Paiwan people in Taiwan, arrived on the island late Sunday evening and were transported to the Museum of Archeology located in the Tainan branch of the National Museum of Prehistory early Monday morning.
A ceremony was held later that day to induct the spirits of the four warriors into their new abode, attended by the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) Minister Icyang Parod and Tien Shih-han (田詩涵), curator of the Museum of Archaeology.
According to Tien, the museum will be home to the skulls while they are studied by morphology researchers.
Tien said the museum will hold discussions with Sinevaudjan, the Paiwan village in Pingtung County’s Mudan Township, from where the skulls originated, to decide what to do with them when the study is complete.
During his speech, Icyang Parod said this marked the first time Taiwan had asked for the remains of its Indigenous peoples to be repatriated.
Icyang Parod said the event was also a milestone in modern societies becoming more aware of the rights of Indigenous peoples, adding that the process took over three years of negotiations between Taiwan and UK bodies, including the University of Edinburgh, where the skulls had been kept since 1907.
The university holds one of the largest and most historically significant collections of ancestral remains, notably skulls.
Doing right by cultures
Echoing Icyang Parod’s observations, University of Edinburgh’s Chair of Anatomy Tom Gillingwater told CNA in an interview on Nov. 3 that the university had worked closely with Taipei’s representative office in Edinburgh to ensure the skulls were repatriated.
During the process, it worked to understand on what basis Taiwan was making the request and who the rightful owners of the skulls were in Taiwan, he said.
“We need to ensure that we are returning the remains to the right people. And so, we had to undertake some research ourselves, essentially due diligence, to make sure that the skulls we are returning are what we think they are,” Gillingwater said .
“The request (of Taiwan) came from the minister for Indigenous peoples in Taiwan. So, we were absolutely satisfied that they were the correct people to be returning the skulls to.”
Gillingwater added that the university formalized a repatriation policy into its governing constitution more than 30 years ago to encourage members of the university to work with communities around the world to repatriate human remains whenever requested.
“(In 2019) we returned skulls from Vedda individuals back to the tribal chief from Sri Lanka,” Gillingwater said. “Before that, we had a history of returning remains to areas where Indigenous people lived in Australia and New Zealand.”
The anatomy expert spoke with CNA after he was invited to participate in ceremonial rituals to welcome the skulls back to Taiwan, which was initiated by the Paiwan delegation at the university.
As well as Gillingwater, UK representatives at the Nov. 3 ceremony included the university’s Vice Principal Gavin McLachlan and Anatomical Museum curator Malcolm MacCallum, as well as the Scottish city’s Lord Provost (mayor) Robert Aldridge.
Along with Kelly Hsieh (謝武樵), the head of Taiwan’s representative office in London, and the head of the mission’s Edinburgh branch Chang Chia-change (張嘉政), the Taiwanese delegation also included Pan Chuang-chih (潘壯志), head of Mudan Township in Pingtung County and CIP Deputy Minister Calivat Gadu.
Calivat Gadu told CNA that in addition to the four skulls repatriated from Edinburgh, eight others remain unaccounted for and they are most probably in Japan.
At the ceremony on Nov. 3, the representatives and dignitaries gave their full attention to Paiwan shaman Civur Malili who communicated with both the spirits of the skulls and the Paiwan sun deity Qadaw.
While speaking on behalf of the four fallen warriors, she brought tears and laughter to the audience.
Civur Malili, known in her language as a “pulingaw,” said that during her communications with the deity and ancestral spirits, the four warriors initially had reserved feelings about returning home to Taiwan, because they had died in unnatural circumstances and could therefore bring their descendants bad luck according to Paiwan beliefs.
The spirits eventually agreed to return home after they were reassured that it would help to pass historical memories to future generations, Civur Malili said.
Then on Oct. 28 when they embarked on the journey home, “we strongly felt the ancestral spirits really want to go home,” Civur Malili recalled.
With the help of the Taiwan mission to the United Kingdom and some improvisation, the pulingaw was able to perform the ritual successfully and received permission from Qadaw and the ancestral spirits to bring the four skulls back to Taiwan.
Towards the end of the ritual, the pulingaw conveyed gratitude to the University of Edinburgh for taking proper care of the skulls, going as far as to welcome MacCallum into the ritual spiritual circle to embrace the curator in a nod to his efforts.
The skulls of the Paiwan warriors were taken by the Japanese during an 1874 punitive expedition into Shimen, in today’s Mudan Township, known as the “Mudan Incident,” which was launched in response to the massacre of 54 shipwrecked Ryukyuan sailors by Paiwan warriors three years earlier.
They were thought to have been originally taken as war trophies by Japanese soldiers and were carried to Japan by an unnamed United States Navy officer who had accompanied the Japanese as a military advisor.
Before they reached the University of Edinburgh in 1907, they were in the possession of Stuart Eldrige, a US doctor and skull collector living in Yokohama, Japan, and John Anderson, the first curator of the Indian Museum in Calcutta.
(By Yang Ssu-jui, Chen Yun-yu and James Lo)