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Harvard Peabody Museum Returns Five Ancient Mummies to Denmark

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The Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology returned five Greenlandic Inuit mummies to Denmark last week, five years after their repatriation was first requested by Danish authorities.

The mummies included the 500-year-old remains of four young adults and one child from the Greenlandic Inuit peoples, a group Indigenous to Greenland. They were originally transferred to Harvard from the Greenlandic island of Uunartoq by anthropologist Martin Luther in 1929.

Since then, the remains have been used by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In early 2019, Harvard researchers performed CT scans on the ancestral mummies and found evidence of cardiovascular disease, a significant finding for remains that originated long before the modern diet.

The result caught the attention of administrators at the Greenland National Museum, who began discussing repatriation with the Peabody later that year.

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Christian Koch Madsen, deputy director of the Greenland National Museum, said the museum has also been seeking the return of human remains native to Greenland from all over the world.

“In Greenland, there is an openness to carry out various research on human remains, but of course, it has to be carried out in some kind of collaboration with us,” Madsen said. “I think there was also realization from the Peabody that, of course, these investigations should be carried out with our approval.”

A Harvard spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Crimson that the mummified remains “were legally repatriated to the Greenland National Museum and Archives in the summer of 2022” and were physically returned last week.

“The Peabody Museum respects the cultural sovereignty of communities to determine future steps,” the spokesperson added.

The Peabody is similarly in the process of returning Native American human remains to Indigenous American tribes. As of February, the Peabody had returned 44 percent of its 10,118 total held ancestors as part of its efforts under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

In an email to The Crimson, Peabody Director Jane Pickering wrote that the return was approved by the Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections — a body formed in 2021 following a review that found the University held the human remains of individuals of African descent who were likely to have been alive during the time of slavery in the U.S.

“The Museum has been in regular communication with the Greenland National Museum on this return since the initial contact and following the official request for repatriation from the Greenlandic government (through the National Museum and Archives),” she wrote.

While Madsen said communication with the Peabody throughout the process was “really good,” the five-year-long repatriation process was delayed from awaiting government approvals such as export permits.

“It was as efficient as it can be in a world where there’s so much bureaucracy around everything,” Madsen said.

Despite the approvals, the mummified ancestors are not returning home to Greenland just yet.

The Peabody has transferred the mummies to Denmark to temporarily be housed at the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute on behalf of the Greenland National Museum, which currently lacks the proper facilities to house the mummified remains.

“We do have a scheduled plan for how to create facilities in Greenland,” Madsen said. “Once that will be realized, then we will move forward with actually moving physically the collection.”

The remains were received by the University of Copenhagen this past Friday. Despite leaving Harvard, the mummies will remain in study through a collaborative project, called Angerlartunnguit, between Harvard, the Greenland National Museum, and the National Museum of Denmark.

Madsen said that the public reaction in Greenland was positive and that “people are extremely happy” about the return of the mummies.

“This is our ancestors. This is our history. And now somebody is finally looking at our part of this history.” Madsen said. “There’s great excitement, and it’s just the right thing to do.”

—Staff writer Neeraja S. Kumar can be reached at neeraja.kumar@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Annabel M. Yu can be reached at annabel.yu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @annabelmyu

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