The politics and policies of repatriating archaeological skeletal material : a case study into South Africa's indigenous past

Master Thesis


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This thesis has two aims. The first is to examine the history of archaeology in southern· Africa and to trace the development of calls for the repatriation and return of skeletal material to indigenous groups. The second examines indigenous group claims for the repatriation and return of skeletal material from archaeological institutions in, and outside, South Africa. Two case studies form the basis for this inquiry. The first focuses on the claim of the Griqua National Conference (GNC) for the repatriation from France of the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a woman of Khoikhoi descent. The second case study examines the claim of Adam Kok V and his family for the return of the remains of their ancestor Cornelius Kok II from the University of the Witwatersrand Anatomy Department. This thesis also documents the first repatriation ceremony to take place in South Africa. A case study of Native American Indian history during the colonial period and development of the social sciences at that time provides a comparative perspective. Overall questions posed within the context of the discussion are: what is the position of archaeologists in these situations; what is their relationship with South Africa's indigenous nations and what does the future hold for the discipline in this regard? Several research methods were adopted. Formal interviews, consisting of structured questions, recording and note taking, formed part of the research methodology. Informal interviews were unstructured and consisted of note taking only. I refer to these as primary sources for case studies. Secondary sources comprise information obtained from interviews conducted by others. The interviews consist of material researched and collected in the last two years. Interview material included in the thesis consists of information provided by archaeologists and indigenous group leaders from the Griqua National Conference and the Khoisan Representative Council. Attendances at occasions such as the repatriation ceremony of Cornelius Kok II in September 1996, and the first annual Khoisan Conference in July 1997, were documented through note taking and photographing. The case studies form the structure around which the discussion is based, but I also discuss several related 2 issues, the most important of which is race. Members of indigenous groups such as the GNC, who are claiming Griqua descent, was classified 'Coloured' under apartheid laws. It is from this stratum of the community that calls for indigenous re-identification and empowerment have come. As a result, the histories of Saartjie Baartman and Cornelius Kok II have political consequences. 3 Claimants' groups are understood as being regionalist in structure, wanting access to economic and political resources, yet wishing to remain within a unitary state. In reclaiming their (lost' histories, ·indigenous groups have claimed (icons' of Khoikhoi and San history and have challenged the discipline that institutionalised their ancestors' bodies as subjects' of study - archaeology.