UK university returns warrior skulls to Taiwan’s Indigenous Paiwan people

Edinburgh University, which was given the skulls in 1907, says the return is part of its attempt to address its colonial legacy.

University academics and Paiwan Indigenous leaders mark the return of the skulls. The Paiwan leaders are dressed in traditional clothing with head dresses
Pan Chuang-Chih, the mayor of Mudan, and Gavin McLachlan (right), from the University of Edinburgh mark the return of the skulls [Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh]

The University of Edinburgh has returned the skulls of four Paiwan warriors to Taiwanese Indigenous leaders, nearly 150 years after their deaths.

The repatriation is the first of its kind for Taiwan, according to the university, and comes as Edinburgh and similar institutions across Europe reckon with their colonial past.

“This repatriation is a culmination of international cooperation between the University and the Taiwanese community,” Professor Tom Gillingwater, chief of anatomy at the university, said in a statement.

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

The skulls were returned to representatives of Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous People and the head of Mudan township – a community in southern Taiwan close to where the warriors were killed in 1874.

The four Paiwan warriors were the victims of a Japanese punitive expedition to Taiwan carried out in retaliation for the massacre of 54 shipwrecked sailors from the Ryukyu Islands ­in 1871.

Known as the “Mudan Incident,” the conflict helped kick-start Japan’s colonial ambitions towards Taiwan, which it would annex from China’s crumbling Qing dynasty 20 years later.

The skulls were transported as trophies to Japan by an American military adviser, and then transferred through two other owners before they were given to the university in 1907.

Edinburgh “holds one of the largest and most historically significant collection of ancestral remains, notably skulls,” according to the university.

The Paiwan are Taiwan’s second-largest Indigenous community with a population of just over 102,000 people in 2020, according to government figures.

Source: Al Jazeera