THE skulls of four tribal warriors have been repatriated after being kept by the University of Edinburgh for more than 100 years.

In a first of its kind repatriation of human remains to Taiwan, the remains were presented to dignitaries from the Mudan community – also known as the Botan tribe – in a formal handover ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh.

Mudan is a township in the south of Taiwan predominantly populated by the Paiwan people, the second largest indigenous group in the country.

In 1874, during an important chapter of Paiwan history, the four Mudan warriors were killed in a battle with Japanese invaders to avenge the deaths of 54 sailors who were killed three years prior by the Paiwanese.

The sailors were ambushed after becoming shipwrecked in Taiwanese territory in what is now referred to as the Mudan Incident.

The National: Tom Gillingwater in the University of Edinburgh Skull RoomTom Gillingwater in the University of Edinburgh Skull Room (Image: University of Edinburgh)

It is understood that the four warriors were unlikely to have been the perpetrators of the violence against the sailors.

However, the skulls are thought to have been taken as war trophies by Japanese soldiers and carrier to Japan by an unnamed US Navy officer, who had accompanied the Japanese as a military advisor.

During the next 30 years the skulls fell into the possession of Stuart Eldrige, a US doctor and skull collector in Yokohama, and John Anderson, the first curator of the Indian Museum in Calcutta.

Eventually, the skulls reached Edinburgh after being given to the University’s principal William Turner in 1907.

The repatriation is part of the University of Edinburgh’s efforts to examine and address its colonial legacy.

The National: Pan Chuang-Chih speaks at the official handover ceremonyPan Chuang-Chih speaks at the official handover ceremony (Image: University of Edinburgh)

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

“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.”

Ahead of the ceremony representatives joined the Mayor of the Mudan Township, alongside members of the Taipei Representative Office in UK and Council of Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan to take part in a traditional Paiwan service designed to honour the spirits of the deceased.

Edinburgh University holds one of the largest and most historically significant collections of ancestral remains, notably skulls.

The majority of the skulls in Edinburgh’s collection were assembled by Turner and like many UK universities with anatomical collections, the skulls came from the British Empire’s colonies or through their global networks.

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Human skulls were used in the study of anatomy and anthropology as well as the now discredited idea of phrenology Popular in the UK and other parts of Europe in the colonial era, phrenology formulated racist theories of inferiority based on the shape and dimensions of a skull.

The University’s Anatomical Museum collections are now studied for research into the history of genetics, diets and the movement of people.

There is a long history of the University of Edinburgh repatriating remains and items from its collection.

The first repatriation took place more than 75 years ago.

Most recently, in 2019, nine skulls were returned after being taken from Sri Lanka during the British colonial period in the 1880s.