Museum officials have said that such collecting put men in danger of being killed simply for their tattoos after weapons and other goods were offered in exchange for the heads.

'Dignity restored'

"These are much more than simple museum pieces," Michele Tabarot, a French parliamentarian, said.

"These are human remains and some of these people were deliberately murdered to satisfy a despicable trade."

Michelle Tabarot, French parliamentarian

"These are human remains and some of these people were deliberately murdered to satisfy a despicable trade."

The decision was welcomed by the New Zealand government, with Pita Sharples, the Maori affairs minister saying it was "a matter of great significance" to Maori.

"Maori believe that, through their ancestors' return to their original homeland, their dignity is restored, and they can be put to rest in peace among their families," he said.

Since 1992, New Zealand's Te Papa Tongarewa museum has requested 500 Maori heads stored in museums around the world to be returned.

About 300 of them have since been sent back.

The national history museum in the western French city of Rouen offered in 2007 to return its Maori heads to New Zealand, but the government put the move on hold.

French officials were worried that Rouen's unilateral decision would set a precedent for similar action by other museums - a big concern in a country that is home to the Louvre, with its many Egyptian mummies.

New Zealand's Maori people make up 15 per cent of the country's population.