Osteological Assessment of a Seized Shipment of Modified Human Crania: Implications for Dayak Cultural Heritage Preservation and the Global Human Remains Trade

  • Damien Huffer
  • Antonio Guerreiro
  • Shawn Graham
Keywords: Engraved skulls, Dayak, illicit trafficking, Sarawak Museum, osteology, provenance research, taphonomy

Abstract

The Royal Malaysian Customs Department seized 16 human skulls in 2005, which were acquisitioned by the Sarawak Museum (Jabatan Muzium Sarawak) in 2015. This paper analyzes the osteology of these skulls in terms of demographics, preservation condition, taphonomy, pathology, and post-mortem modifications. It then contextualizes the osteology of this collection in terms of the history and ethnography of Dayak ‘trophy skull’ modifications, and how such remains were modified for intended export and sale as part of the global human remains trade. In light of our osteological study, we find that peri- or post-mortem taphonomic modifications, and evidence of pathology and trauma are all relatively minimal. The diverse engraved motifs and other decorations found on these remains are not consistent with the historic Dayak ‘trophy skull’ trade. Instead, they are more likely a part of the newer online trade in human remains, where human remains are modified (as these ones are) to look as if they have an older Colonial-era provenance. Online trafficking of human remains, especially when modified to look as if they were produced or used by an Indigenous culture, represents a growing threat to human heritage. The identification of recently-modified material is only possible when confiscated assemblages, such as these, are made available for study.

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Published
2021-07-08