Felix Kaaya, a member of the Meru people of Tanzania, spent decades searching for his grandfather’s bones. Mangi (“Chief”) Lobulu was among the 19 Indigenous leaders hanged from a single tree on March 2, 1900, during Germany’s brutal suppression of the Meru’s resistance to colonization of East Africa. After that, his body disappeared.
Kaaya, who is now in his early 70s, suspected that Lobulu was one of the many dead African individuals whose remains were shipped to German universities and museums for study and experimentation. Konradin Kunze, a German performer and director, met Kaaya while preparing an exhibition advocating for the return of these remains. Kunze promised to help Kaaya find Lobulu. His research in German archives revealed that Lobulu’s skeleton had indeed been sent to the Berlin anthropologist Felix von Luschan and that Lobulu’s bones were among the 200 skeletons and 5,000 skulls the American Museum of Natural History purchased from von Luschan’s widow in 1924. Lobulu’s remains have spent a century on the Upper West Side.
The AMNH collected the remains of at least 12,000 individuals through 150 years of purchases, donations, and expeditions. While the existence of this collection is not a secret, their identities are generally unknown. After I received an anonymous tip last year, I began trying to identify these individuals, many of whom came from Indigenous or colonized populations around the world.
Most of the human remains still held in American museums are those of Native Americans (nearly 100,000, according to a recent ProPublica report). But the remains of thousands of individuals from outside the United States also sit in storage at institutions including Chicago’s Field Museum, the University of California, Berkeley’s Hearst Museum, and the University of Pennsylvania. The Smithsonian Institution, with the remains of 33,000 individuals, and Harvard University, with 22,000, hold the largest human remains collections in the United States.
Major protests by Indigenous groups in the 1980s led to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), which requires all museums that receive federal funding to turn over Native American remains to descendant communities if it is possible to identify them. And in 2007, the United Nations recognized that Indigenous people everywhere have the right to reclaim their ancestors’ bodies.
After recent investigations, protests, and Congressional rebuke, other American institutions with large human remains collections have pledged to disclose more information and return remains to communities. In April, the Smithsonian even issued a general apology for “the pain our historical practices have caused people, their families and their communities.” The Smithsonian’s new collections policy requires it to share information about their holdings with the public, collaborate with communities seeking returns, and treat the remains they hold “with dignity and respect, as those once living.”
Through all protest and reaction, the AMNH has stayed mostly quiet, and its collections have so far escaped much scrutiny. After I got the anonymous tip, I read a 2018 article in the New Yorker by Daniel Gross, one of the only journalists to have looked into the AMNH’s human remains collections. Gross reported that the museum holds the remains of Herero and Nama people killed in an early 20th-century genocide in the colony then known as German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia). To figure out how many more secrets were hidden in the museum’s storage rooms, I spent months poring over AMNH documents and academic papers and talking to Kaaya and other claimants as well as nearly a dozen current and former AMNH staffers, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.
In my final request for comment to the museum this month, I shared some of the sources I used in my research, including the museum’s annual reports, research papers, and other materials that I’ve also linked throughout this article. A few days after they received this information, the AMNH’s chair and president announced in an all-staff email that the museum would update its human remains policy. They promised to reveal the details soon, and specified that one change would be the removal of all human remains from display.
Only a few human remains are currently on public display at the AMNH, but this wasn’t always the case. Samuel J. Redman, author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (2016), told me that the museum not only hosted the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921, but also put together an exhibition on human evolution for the event. According to Redman, the signage on a case containing the skulls of Native American people instructed visitors to observe “the persistence to this day of Neanderthaloid forms and other primitive features.”
Redman explained that the AMNH was one of many museums that began collecting human remains as part of a “comparative racial project” in the late 19th century. Scientists were looking for physical evidence to substantiate racial differences. They measured the cranial capacity of skulls, on the theory that White Europeans had the largest brains. They also examined posture, hair texture, height, and anything else that might pin down just who was who.
One valuable source of comparative anatomy were the naturally mummified bodies from Indigenous graves in hot, dry areas of Chile and Peru. The AMNH holds the remains of at least 414 individuals taken from Peru. And one of the handful of bodies still on display at the museum is “Copper Man,” who died in the 6th century, when a mine shaft collapsed on him. Now, his body is part of an exhibit on early technology, lying in a narrow display case labeled “Mining and Smelting,” with a piece of the copper ore he was searching for perched on a ledge just out of his reach. With his braided hair and ankle bindings of fur and wool, Copper Man, one of the world’s best-preserved mummified bodies, was a sensation when he was discovered and put on display by a series of entrepreneurs in Chile and New York. J.P. Morgan, then a member of the museum’s board of trustees, purchased and donated the remains to the AMNH in 1905.
Representatives of the Atacameños, the Indigenous people who live in the area of Chile where Copper Man was found, have been asking for his return since at least 1991. In 2007, they successfully reclaimed and reburied several ancestors from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. But the AMNH has dodged requests for Copper Man with a long series of delays and excuses. Once, they sent a fiberglass replica of the body to Chile instead of Copper Man himself. (In 2022, the Chilean artist Nicolás Grum used this replica to create an installation imagining Copper Man’s escape from his glass case.)
In 2008, AMNH curator Ian Tattersall told Chilean officials that the museum would surrender Copper Man only if Chile would keep him in the same temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions. In other words: no reburial, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of ongoing expense. Seemingly unconsidered is the time Copper Man appears to have spent at the AMNH without such careful considerations — when its display case was temporarily opened in 1936, Roy Chapman Andrews, then the museum’s director, reported a “nauseating smell” emanating from the body
The Chilean researchers I talked to knew that the AMNH holds a second mummified body, which was found in the same mine as Copper Man in 1914. But in all these decades of discussions, no one bothered to inform them that there are two additional bodies in the museum, “the mummies of two prehistoric Chilean Indians, an adult and a child” taken from a single grave in Chile and donated in 1921. Their mourners had placed a parrot in their grave, to “communicate to the deceased the news of the world from which death had severed him.”
Ironically, we know so much about Copper Man partly because the museum has largely ignored Chile’s request that he be taken off display. It is much harder to know the identity of the other individuals whose remains are in storage. The catalog of the human remains in AMNH’s biological anthropology collection is not available to the public, and the museum declined my request for access. Fortunately, there are other sources of information, including the annual reports in which the museum once boasted about additions to their collection.
The circus impresario P.T. Barnum gave the first donation I could find, contributing an iguana, two snakes, and “1 Human Hand” on May 31, 1872. In 1920, the widow of a eugenicist doctor donated “tanned human skins, male and female.” The most recent donation I found came in 1996, when the journalist Robert Lipsyte dropped off “Timmy,” as he had nicknamed the shrunken head of a child purchased by his father-in-law in Ecuador in the late 1940s.
Many of the remains in the museum came from graves dug up during AMNH expeditions. In 1888, Aleš Hrdlička, who established the field of biological anthropology in the United States, went to northwestern Mexico “to collect as many human skeletons as possible” for the AMNH from Rarámuri (Tarahumara) and Wixáritari (Huichol) burial places, even though exporting these remains was already illegal under Mexican law. Only 12 sets of these remains have been returned. The influential anthropologist Franz Boas and his colleagues took “skeletons, more or less complete, and numerous single bones” from First Nations graves in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia, according to a 1930 museum publication that analyzed 486 of the skulls they collected. And during a 1935 expedition, the curator Harry L. Shapiro opened ancestral burial places on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Shapiro collected the bones of at least 22 individuals. During the same trip, he supervised the creation of a replica of one of the island’s famed stone heads. This replica, after its star turn in the 2006 blockbuster Night at the Museum, is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. Later, Shapiro joined the American Eugenics Society, serving as its president from 1955 to 1962.
The museum also purchased remains from other collectors, including von Luschan. Although the available records are scarce, I found no indications that these sellers asked families or communities for permission to take these remains.
For example, the AMNH holds the remains of at least 75 Indigenous people from South Africa (and at least 277 skulls from the continent as a whole). Forty-two of these South African examples were collected by Robert Broom, a Scotsman who began working as a doctor in South Africa in the late 19th century. Broom, an avid amateur paleoanthropologist who discovered notable examples of early hominin fossils, also collected the bones of Indigenous people, whom he speculated were the “degraded … remnant of a race once as intelligent as ourselves.”
Broom began collecting in 1897. As he later wrote to a fellow anatomist, Indigenous refugees from a drought came to Port Nolloth in the northwestern coast of South Africa, where he was then living. They were “mostly old people, and a number died there. I cut their heads off and boiled them in paraffin tins on the kitchen stove.” By the 1920s, Broom, eager to collect information on his specimens before they died, seems to have come to an understanding with prison officials in Douglas, South Africa. Broom photographed Indigenous prisoners while they worked in his garden, obtained their bodies after their death, and buried them in shallow graves in the same garden for a few months until they decayed into skeletons suitable for shipment. Despite South African people’s clear and continued interest in reclaiming such remains, the AMNH not only still holds these bones, but has also repeatedly given scientists access to them.
After decades of intense collecting and comparative study of bodies, most scientists gave up on the project of using bones to prove superiority. (Debate on how much, if anything, we can tell about someone’s ancestry from their bones still continues.) Modern biological anthropologists study human remains for far different purposes. Our bones record variations in diet, housing, medicine, and disease exposures across different climates and time periods. Even the tiniest fragment of human remains can yield DNA — both human DNA and the DNA of microorganisms entombed within bodies, meaning that we can understand the history of diseases like malaria, bubonic plague, and influenza. A growing number of Indigenous scientists advocate for such research, and biological anthropologists are thinking about how to move the field toward a more ethical future. Suggestions include collaborating with descendant communities to decide questions like what types of research are appropriate, how the resulting data should be shared, and whether, and how, remains should be curated or repatriated.
In 2020, following protests over the museum’s practice of allowing testing that destroyed portions of Native American bones, the AMNH began to require outside scholars to consult with descendant communities about testing and imposed a moratorium on destructive testing, like drilling for DNA samples. But while this policy might help communities in cases where a researcher happens to be interested in their ancestors, there are few ways for these communities to figure out whether the remains of their ancestors are held in the AMNH in the first place.
Trying to identify the remains in the museum, I read all the publications I could find by scientists who examined them. I learned the most from the article with the driest title, “The Distribution of Human Skeletal Material in the Continental United States” (1977), which lists the geographical origins of many AMNH remains: at least 30 from Mongolia, 25 from Palestine, 49 from China, 866 from Bolivia, 40 from Puerto Rico, 643 from Mexico, and on and on and on.
Sometimes, learning just the location and date of the acquisition of bones is enough to understand the grim circumstances of their collection. For example, according to a catalog of the von Luschan acquisition that I obtained from a source, he sold the AMNH 92 skulls from the cemetery of the Panagia Greek Orthodox Church in Antalya, Turkey. In the aftermath of World War I, Turkish nationalists began systematically killing and expelling Greeks from the region. In 1922, the authorities converted Panagia Church into a museum. With no one left to protect the dead, their bones would have been easy to steal. A similar story presumably accounts for the 12 skulls von Luschan labeled as Armenian from the similarly devastated population of the Turkish city of Aintab (now called Gaziantep).
The AMNH also collected bodies from local sources. Reading a 2007 publication by researchers looking for changes in skeletal robusticity, I found that the museum holds the remains of Black New Yorkers who were dissected at area medical schools in the late 1940s. Further investigation by The New York Times found that the AMNH has at least 60 of such remains, along with other bones dug up from a Manhattan cemetery in which enslaved people were buried.
Issues of consent and research on the bodies of Black Individuals are increasingly contentious, and institutions including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have recently announced plans to repatriate or bury the remains of enslaved people held in their anatomical collections. When I asked the AMNH for more information about these remains, a spokesperson confirmed that its collection contains “skeletons donated from regional medical schools, many of which are from known individuals, including more than 50 African Americans.” No additional details were provided in the museum’s response.
The AMNH spokesperson responded to my questions to say that forensic scientists examined the remains in the museum’s collections of all people believed to have African ancestry in 2021, but that they “cannot conclusively link any of these remains to enslaved individuals.” However, I found that the museum’s annual reports show donations of two “negro” skulls from Jamaica and one from Saint Thomas — both locations with long histories of slavery. Other donors gave two complete skeletons and at least ten skulls identified as “negro” from unspecified locations in the years between 1897 and 1928. And skull number 1509 in the von Luschan collection once belonged to a “Negro (prob[ably] Sudan, African)” who was “hanged in New Orleans, 1831.” The spokesperson said the museum’s research was ongoing.
When I asked Alzred Oomittuk, an elder of the Native Village of Point Hope, Alaska, if he was aware that the AMNH was holding Ipiutak remains, he knew exactly which ancestors I was talking about. Between 1939 and 1941, the AMNH was one of the sponsoring institutions of an expedition that removed 500 bodies and over 10,000 artifacts from a site adjacent to Point Hope, where Oomittuk was born. Oomittuk studied the museum’s publication about these excavations in college, and has used the information during the 30 years he’s spent on the village council to teach younger generations of the Inupiat people about their heritage. He hopes to instill pride that they are living in the same place and hunting the same animals with the same tools as their ancestors have done for 2,000 years. But until we talked, Oomittuk had no idea that the remains of some of these ancestors were in New York.
The curator Shapiro went to Point Hope in 1941 to supervise the excavation of the burials and take “anthropometric measurements of the Eskimo now living at Point Hope,” just as he had done on Rapa Nui. But there’s an important difference between Rapa Nui and Point Hope: Indigenous Alaskans should be able to reclaim ancestral remains under American federal law.
The AMNH completed its NAGPRA-mandated inventory of the Native American remains it holds in 2000, identifying around 1,600 “affiliated” remains, meaning that their records indicate from which tribes these bones were taken. The AMNH also holds the remains of nearly 2,000 “culturally unidentified” Native Americans, which the museum considers itself unable to link to a present-day tribe, either through a lack of information or because the remains originated from a group with no living descendants.
When the AMNH was doing its initial NAGPRA inventory, the Ipiutak site was thought to have been abandoned in the 9th century. The Inupiat people who live there now were considered a separate, later arrival. But this changed in 2019, when another museum gave the Ipiutak remains they held back to the Inupiat village of Point Hope. Chip Colwell, author of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture, told me this return demonstrated that the village is the relevant descendant community for NAGPRA repatriations.
I could find no evidence that the AMNH reconsidered its retention of the materials excavated at Point Hope after 2019. Instead, the museum made the bones available to a team of scientists, who measured them and published their results in 2021 and 2023. The first paper brings up the issue of whether it is ethical to study these bodies without permission, but reassures readers that “none of the remains were under a repatriation request at the time they were examined by the authors.” The lack of repatriation claim is not really surprising, however, considering that the Inupiat people did not know where the remains of their ancestors were.
When we spoke, Oomittuk began to talk about what it might mean to Point Hope to reclaim not only the remains but the artifacts that the excavators took from graves, which are also covered by NAGPRA. The AMNH holds at least two elaborate burial masks as well as carvings made from ivory, jet, and caribou antler. Oomittuk imagined a new museum to display them — and bring much-needed tourist dollars to the low-income village. Oomittuk even told me that he hopes that new archeological excavations will happen some day on a nearby site, which is even older than Ipiutak. He worked with archeologists who wanted to dig there in the 1990s, but the village council, remembering the ancestors who disappeared after the AMNH expedition, refused their permission.
I asked a number of other Indigenous communities if they knew the AMNH held their ancestral remains. Some, like the Tongans (remains of two individuals) said they had no idea. Others, like the Australian Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation (149 individuals), told me they were aware, but explained that the repatriation process was going slowly. Chief Frank Brown of the Heiltsuk Nation (10 individuals) said that although the nation’s repatriation efforts had so far focused on ceremonial objects, part of “the commitment we have made as a people” is to one day reclaim all their ancestors: “They should be reinterred where they belong.”
Many representatives said that money was a major factor in delaying repatriations. For example, it took two years for the 150 existing members of the Tseycum First Nation of British Columbia to raise the $150,000 they needed to cover the cost of their 2008 trip to reclaim the remains of 55 of their ancestors from the AMNH. An archeologist had taken them from graves around the turn of the century and sold them to museums for $5 a skull or $10 a skeleton.
The issue of who should pay for the costs of repatriation, from research to reburial, is unsettled. The Smithsonian has recently been criticized for saying that it is committed to repatriation without allocating nearly enough funds to cover the work. In 2018, an AMNH curator told the New Yorker that the museum lacked the resources to research the origins of all of the human remains in its collections.
But the AMNH does appear to have considerable resources to apply to the task if it truly were a priority. They managed to raise the $465 million needed for their newly-opened Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. And in 2021, the AMNH received $50.9 million in federal, city, and state grants and contributions, along with $36 million in contributions and admissions fees from visitors. These funds pay for a staff of around 1,000, which currently includes only two employees for the Cultural Resource Office, the contact point for all repatriation claims for both human remains and cultural artifacts. The AMNH has so far returned the remains of around 200 individuals to five Indigenous communities outside the United States. The first of these returns happened in 1993, meaning that the museum has taken 20 years to return less than two percent of the individuals whose remains it currently holds. At that rate, it will be nearly 1,000 years before the last of them goes home.
Instead of willingly participating in repatriation claims, the museum seems to have made it more difficult for claimants to find out what its collection holds. After I spent an evening running searches in the AMNH’s public anthropology collections database for terms like skull, scalp, and hair, trying to find human remains that ended up in the anthropology collection because they form part of cultural artifacts, the link to the database began to return an error message: “This page is temporarily unavailable.” Current staffers tell me that the database is working just fine for those who can access it through the museum’s own network. As of this publication, everyone else still gets the error message.
Why is the museum so keen to hold on to its human remains? One possible reason is that AMNH authorities know what’s at stake if the public begins to ask what really belongs inside the museum’s walls. Several of my sources hypothesized that it might not really be about the bones — it could be about the fossils.
The AMNH paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews made spectacular discoveries on his expeditions to fossil-rich Mongolia in the 1920s. His teams brought home hundreds of fossils, including nearly two dozen type specimens, such as the first discoveries of a velociraptor, Saurornithoides mongoliensis, and an oviraptor. The oviraptor was found with its nest of eggs, which were the first dinosaur eggs ever recognized. Andrews signed an agreement promising to return these rare specimens to Mongolia after they were conserved and studied in New York. But when Mongolia’s new communist government forbade museum scientists to reenter the country, the AMNH simply kept the fossils.
A Mongolian paleontologist affiliated with the AMNH has warned that reopening the question of the 1920s fossils might lead to the government shutting down the museum’s current expeditions, which re-launched in 1990. These expeditions are crucial to the museum’s scientific and educational activities. Several inside sources told me that one member of the museum’s senior leadership team, a paleontologist, accordingly seeks to limit discussion of any international repatriation, no matter of what and to where.
There are many other artifacts of the museum’s collections whose origins might not stand much scrutiny, including a small collection of Chinese artifacts taken as part of the massive looting during the aftermath of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and donated to the AMNH in 1920. In 1914, a socialite from Mount Kisco, New York, donated a Tibetan ceremonial garment made of human bone taken from a monastery in Lhasa amidst the slaughter of the Younghusband Expedition, when British forces invaded Tibet in 1903. The AMNH also holds 48 of the artifacts known as “Benin Bronzes” — objects looted by British colonial forces from what is now Nigeria under such cruel circumstances that the Smithsonian, among other institutions, are repatriating all they possess.
Then there’s over 3,000 artifacts from the Congo, donated by King Leopold II in 1907 from what was then his personal colony. Leopold’s rapaciousness, which included orders to murder or maim inhabitants if they did not meet their quotas for rubber production, were already notorious in Europe. Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, told me that the 1907 donation came when Americans were catching on to the horror and the Senate had called on President Roosevelt to investigate Leopold’s “inhuman treatment” of the Congolese. Hochschild explained that Leopold reacted by embarking on “a strenuous effort to cultivate influential people in the U.S.” Leopold both donated artifacts and opened the territory to museum expeditions. It was a canny tactic for appealing to Roosevelt, whose long connection to the AMNH began before his birth — his father was one of its founders.
The museum was so grateful to Leopold that when its African Hall (now the Hall of African Peoples) opened in 1931, it was dedicated to “Their Majesties King Leopold and King Albert of Belgium.” Leopold’s donations included masks, carvings of deities, and other objects of religious significance. Dozens are still on display. These artifacts entered the museum without documentation about exactly how the king’s agents obtained them, but we know these agents sometimes burned villages as punishment for failures to produce. Other colonial powers in the same period, including Britain and Germany, took artifacts before they burned settlements to send to their anthropology museums. It is hard to imagine that Leopold would have paused in his destruction to engage in fair, willing negotiations for the artifacts he sent off to New York. But the truth about how these objects got to New York is getting harder to find, since material about Leopold’s involvement with the AMNH disappeared from the museum’s website as I was drafting this article.
In the end, I was able to find information about the geographical or ethnic origins of around 10,500 individuals now at the museum. Without such information, many descendants will not even suspect their ancestors are in the museum. Thanks to the German archives, Felix Kaaya is one of the lucky ones. In May 2022, the AMNH confirmed it holds his great-uncle’s remains. Negotiations for their return to Tanzania are ongoing. For now, Mangi Lobulu’s bones sit in different storage areas in the museum: the long bones on a tray and the skull in one of the rows of cardboard boxes lining what staffers call “the skull room.”
When I asked Kaaya what will happen when Lobulu returns, he told me that his clan will wrap the bones in white cloth, put them in a coffin, and bury them at the Nringaringa, the traditional meeting place for the Meru people. Mourners will wail during the burial and then spend three days feasting on the roasted meat of bulls. Some Tanzanians believe that the failure to bury the remains of hundreds of their ancestors held in museum collections contributes to disease and climate disasters. Even if you don’t share this belief, it’s understandable that Kaaya and his clan want to lay Lobulu finally to rest.
The AMNH says it is amending its policies around human remains. But when Copper Man is taken from his case, will he return home? Will the AMNH continue to restrict information and impose delays on repatriation claims? Or will it cooperate with descendant communities? Will the museum be an honored guest at feasts of mourning and of celebration? Or will it continue to keep its secrets — and its bones?