In publica commoda

Press release: Māori and Moriori ancestors return home

No. 91 - 01.06.2023

Göttingen University has returned sacred ancestral remains from its collections to Aotearoa New Zealand


The University of Göttingen has returned koiwi tangata (Māori skeletal remains) and koimi t'chakat (Moriori skeletal remains) from its collections to a delegation from Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rekohu Wharekauri (Chatham Islands). The formal handover took place on Thursday 1 June 2023, in accordance with tikane Moriori (indigenous cultural customs and ceremonies).


New Zealand’s Ambassador to Germany, Craig Hawke emphasized, "The return of sacred ancestral remains shows the close diplomatic relationship between Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Germany that has developed since it was first established 70 years ago." Dr Arapata Hakiwai, co-director of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which is responsible for the return, said: "We appreciate the spirit of partnership of our German colleagues and greatly value their support in the return of our ancestors."


It looks like the ancestral remains belong to 32 individuals, as shown from research by scientists at the "Sensitive Provenances" research project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. Te Herekiekie Haerehuka Herewini, Manager of the Repatriation Programme at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, was involved in the Göttingen research project as a fellow. He explains, "Through our research, we were able to determine that Moriori ancestral remains originated from Rekohu (Chatham Islands) and Māori from Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the route by which they arrived in the two collections."


At the end of the 19th century, a company in Hamburg called Umlauff did a huge amount of business, trading items acquired by German colonialists overseas. Among them were Kōimi T’chakat Moriori, skeletal remains of Moriori (people from Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands east of mainland New Zealand). This trade violated the laws of the country even at that time which prohibited the collection, theft, misuse and trade in human remains of Māori and Moriori from New Zealand. Despite this, after the Second World War, the remains were sent to the University of Göttingen via the Museum für Völkerkunde (museum of ethnology) in Hamburg. Other ancestral remains came from New Zealand to Vienna and from there to Göttingen via the collector Adolf Kluckauf.


"We support the German government's initiative that sacred ancestral remains in collections must be identified and returned to their homelands," says Göttingen University President Professor Metin Tolan. In March 2023, the Senate of the University of Göttingen reiterated the University's responsibility for coming to terms with colonial history and for productive, forward-looking relations with postcolonial societies. The handover is the most recent step in this endeavour.


The handover ceremony can be viewed via YouTube:


Dr Christian Vogel
Forum Wissen - the knowledge museum of the University of Göttingen
Tel: +49 (0)551 39-26692