The ownership of the Taung skull and of other fossil hominids and the question of repatriation

Tobias, Phillip V.
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Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research
The ownership of fossils, and for purposes of this paper I refer to that of hominid fossils, was long assumed to be vested in the individuals who made the discoveries. The author reviews here a series of case histories with which he has had direct or indirect personal contact, that illustrate claims for ownership. Some have been explicit, some implicit. They are drawn from South Africa, East Africa, North Africa, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the Netherlands, Indonesia and China. This historical essay reviews the replacement of this practice by a policy that fossils are not seen as personal property, ut as part of the heritage of the country of origin. During the colonial era, many specimens were removed from former colonies to the ‘home countries’, where they remained for decades, at least until the subject territories attained their independence from the former imperial powers. The new policy about ownership, in such cases, entails the return (repatriation) of the expatriate fossils to the source country. Examples of success stories and of tardy responses are given. A policy for the future is set forth.
Historical Review
national heritage, fossil hominids, repatriation