The ear bone's connected to the heritage of Aborigines

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AN Aboriginal cleansing ritual is being held in the Capital to mark the return of historic remains to their homeland on the other side of the world.

The handover of a small ear bone from an ancient Aborigine woman brings to an end a 17-year process that means all of the Aboriginal human remains held by the University of Edinburgh for more than 100 years will have been returned home.

The bone – the smallest in the human body – was part of a skeleton which was one of the first to be repatriated in 1991.

It was uncovered earlier this year by archivists working through the University's vast collection, and had enough detail to identify where it came from and the area it should be returned to.

Four Australian Aboriginal people in traditional dress were set to carry out the cleansing ritual at the University today to mark the occasion. The Ngarrindjeri representatives were to burn eucalyptus leaves in front of the McEwan Hall in a "smoking" ceremony.

The ritual marks completion of a process started in 1991 to ensure that all Aboriginal remains held in the University's collection were returned.

A vast collection of skulls, skeletons and other human remains were acquired by the University more than 100 years ago, when Australia was a British colony.

At the time, the remains were collected for studies of comparative anatomy, with Universities across Europe building up similar collections.

Since the 1980s, native Aboriginals have been campaigning for museums around the world to return the remains of their ancestors so that they could receive a proper burial.

Edinburgh University led the way in Europe, becoming one of the first to engage with the Australian and New Zealand governments, as well as native Aboriginal people, to return their collections.

In 1991, the University was able to hand over most of its collection, and in 1997, a delegation of Tasmanian Aborigines visited the city to collect samples of hair belonging to Tasmanian Aboriginal people, one of whom was said to be Truganini, the so-called "last" Tasmanian Aboriginal woman.

In 2000, Edinburgh University repatriated what it believed to be the majority of its remaining collection of Aboriginal remains, as well as its collection of Hawaiian remains.

Following the discovery of the minute bone from the ear of an Aboriginal woman, the Ngarrindjeri delegation were invited to Edinburgh for the handover.

Dr John Scally, director of the University of Edinburgh Collections, today said the final ceremony completed an important process.

He said: "Over the past decade we have been returning human remains to the Aboriginal cultures which they came from.

"Times have changed dramatically since we were given these remains. But we are very happy that through returning them we are able to build a new relationship with the indigenous people of Australia. We have been gifted a ceremonial burial pole by the Ngarrindjeri, and we hope to visit them in a few years to see where they have laid these remains to rest."

Earlier this year the skulls of six Aborigines which had been kept in the National Museum of Scotland for more than 100 years were finally returned to the Australian Government.

The skulls were presented to the museum in the 19th century by colonial collectors, and were returned to the National Museum of Australia in April, with the Australian Government hoping to find the community from which they originated.

It followed decades of campaigning by indigenous communities to have the remains of ancestors returned to their land.