New Zealand Returns Ancestral Skulls to Rapa Nui

This week we will be focusing on Easter Island, which is a tiny island that covers 64 square miles in the South Pacific Ocean. It is located about 2,300 miles from Chile’s west coast and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. The first human inhabitants of Rapa Nui are believed to have arrived by emigrants around 300-400 A.D. The island was christened Paaseiland, or Easter Island, by Dutch explorers in honor of the day of their arrival in 1722. It was annexed by Chile in the late 19th century and now maintains an economy based largely on tourism.

Easter Island boasts no natural harbor, but ships can anchor off Hanga Roa on the west coast; it is the island’s largest village, with a population of roughly 3,300. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage site. It is now home to a mixed population, mostly of Polynesian ancestry.


Where is Easter Island?

A couple of months ago Radio New Zealand ran an article about two ancestral (tipuna) skulls that were officially returned to representatives of the Pacific island of Easter Island.

The skulls have been in the possession of the Canterbury and Otago museums for more than 70 years. A delegation from Rapa Nui, including elders, researchers and Chilean government officials, received the skulls after a pōwhiri at Tuahiwi Marae. There was also a ceremony at Canterbury Museum this morning, where one of the two skulls has been on display for decades.

Museum director Anthony Wright said it was important to return the skulls to their rightful home, and he hoped this was the start of a new relationship between New Zealand and Rapa Nui. He said many international institutions had returned Māori ancestral remains in the past, and it was only right New Zealand responded to similar requests in the same spirit.

Mario Tuki, from the Rapa Nui Repatriation Program, said it was a special and emotional day for his people. “I think this is significant for all of Polynesia,” he said. Mr. Tuki said today was a big step towards an ultimate goal of bringing home all of the Rapa Nui tipuna scattered across the world. “We have a vision for repatriating our tipuna back from all over the world,” he said. “It is going to be enhanced by this kind of act… we are deeply thankful.”

One of the skulls was bought by the New Zealand government about 70 years ago, as part of a collection of 3,184 Māori and Pacific artifacts from British collector William Oldman. The second was bought to Otago Museum in 1935 by Frederick Dustin, the fuel engineer on Richard Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica in the 1930s.

On returning to Rapa Nui at the end of January, the tipuna received an official welcome, and was placed in a hare tapu at the Rapa Nui Museum prior to reburial.

About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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