Palm trees in Vanuatu

Repatriation: bringing remains home to Vanuatu

8 October 2021

The final journey for ancestral remains

After discovering human remains in the caves of Futuna in 1964, archaeologists shipped them to the USA for further analysis. But when the analysis never happened, they sat in storage for years. Until Dr James Flexner and colleagues set about returning them home.

Collecting dust in a storage facility for decades, thousands of miles away from home, were the remains of the people of Futuna, an island in Southern Vanuatu.  The remains were removed from the caves of Futuna by archaeologists in 1964, alongside the help of a team of local men, and were sent to the United States for analysis. Instead, they lay untouched. 

"These are people’s ancestors. It's pretty insensitive to store them in boxes in an archaeology lab somewhere next to the potsherds and stone tools, with no plans to study them in detail or indeed to give them back," says Dr James Flexner from the Department of Archaeology

Flexner notes, it was a fairly common practice to excavate human remains with no plan to return them in the 1960s. "It's part of the colonial legacy in archaeology, which was obviously still alive and well in the Pacific region at the time."

Here, he shares the story of his work in Vanuatu, and how he worked together with the people of Futuna to return the remains to their rightful resting place. 

Researchers in Vanuatu

The team exploring the site of the archaeological excavation in Vanuatu. (L-R): Richard Shing, Wanda Zinger (foreground), Takaronga Kuautonga (background), Frederique Valentin, Stuard Bedford.

Why is it so important to repatriate the remains?

One of the big ethically motivated projects for 21st century archaeology is to identify and return the thousands of people whose remains were excavated as part of the colonial legacy. Often these excavations took place with little or no community involvement, other than maybe working for minimal wages as excavators. The local community rarely had a say in whether, or how, excavations should proceed.

Ours is just a small project among many, but every ancestor who can be returned to where they came from helps to mend some of the harm that archaeologists did among Indigenous communities in the past. Archaeologists often did not consider or care about local beliefs. They were motivated by a desire to do “good science.” Now we understand that good science actually has to bring the descendant communities into the picture, not only for ethical reasons but also to make our work more intellectually robust.

Dr James Flexner and colleagues in Vanuatu.

The team in Vanuatu.

How did the local community respond to the repatriation and how did you work together?

Archaeological fieldwork in Vanuatu is collaborative by design. You have to work through the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS) and its network of filwokas (fieldworkers). Our main contact on Futuna is Takaronga “Jimmy” Kuautonga, who I’ve worked with since 2011 and who my colleagues have known for decades before that. Jimmy has long been a stalwart at VKS, and actually trained as a conservator in the Australian Museum here in Sydney around 2005.

He has long advocated for the return of skeletal material excavated in the 1960s from his home island of Futuna, and was instrumental in having the remains returned from the United States to Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, in the 1990s. The next step was to do a final study of the remains before returning them home in 2020. We were able to organise this on the back of an ARC Discovery Project that I was awarded with Stuart Bedford (ANU) and Frederique Valentin (CNRS France) in 2016.

The community response and general involvement in the project has been overwhelmingly positive, and I think everyone was really happy with the outcomes. It allows the people from the older generation who remember the excavations taking place in the 1960s to put a final chapter on their story.  It’s hard to describe how deeply people appreciate seeing the return of their atua (ancestors).

Ours is just a small project among many, but every ancestor who can be returned to where they came from helps to mend some of the harm that archaeologists did among Indigenous communities in the past.
Dr James Flexner
How difficult was the repatriation process? 

The process was made possible because of existing relationships, which smoothed some of the wrinkles that can accompany the early stages of this kind of project.  We could build on those connections and talk to more people in Vanuatu about what we were doing and why. The most obvious recent challenge has been the international border closures during 2020 and 2021. Luckily for us, Vanuatu was generally COVID-free during this time, so Stuart he was able to do much of the organising and eventually to travel to Futuna with the remains.

There were technical challenges too. For example, many people in Vanuatu, including Jimmy, can be difficult to reach via email or phone. But because of the way their mobile networks work, they are reasonably active on Facebook, and so I was often relaying messages between email and Facebook. It wasn’t the most efficient solution but it worked.

What's next - for the project, and for your work?

This project may be finished, but I’ll always maintain some connection to Vanuatu, especially the islands in the south of the country which have been so important to my research during the last decade. One of the graduate students involved in this project, Rob Williams, still has a PhD to finish on Futuna agricultural systems dating to the last 1000 years (to be completed at the Australian National University, supervised by myself, Stuart Bedford, Tim Denham, and Geoff Clark). Once that’s done we’ll present that back to the community along with our other publications.

Beyond this I’ve got a few ongoing and new projects, including one working with Australian South Sea Islanders (descendants of people “blackbirded” from the Western Pacific beginning in the 1860s) in Queensland, which involves a different kind of Vanuatu connection. Earlier this year I also found out I’ve been awarded an ARC Future Fellowship, so I’ll be starting some new fieldwork in French Polynesia beginning in 2022.

Returning home

A short video documenting the repatriation of ancestral remains to the island of Futuna, after 56 years. 

This project was made possible by an ARC Discovery Project, Grant ID: DP160103578.

Banner image: Photo by ONNE Beauty on Unsplash

Dr James Flexner

Senior Lecturer in Historical Archaeology and Heritage
Academic profile

Read more