Skeletal Collecting Before Darwin

  • Paul TurnbullEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Pacific History book series (PASPH)


This chapter surveys how Australian skulls and other skeletal material were acquired by British scientists during the first half of the nineteenth century. These bones were eagerly sought out of scientific curiosity about the nature and causes of variation in our species. They were most commonly obtained for metropolitan anatomists and early anthropologists by medical practitioners, the majority of whom were Royal Navy or Army surgeons who were assigned to Australasian service. Surgeons and physicians who settled or travelled in the Australian colonies were also suppliers of Indigenous bodily remains, as were colonists ranging in social background and occupation from itinerant bush workers to colonial governors. Collecting the Indigenous dead for metropolitan scientists was little different in several respects from how colonially-based collectors acquired other kinds of botanical, geological and zoological specimens on their behalf. But the obvious difference was that these were the mortal remains of fellow humans, which in the majority of cases were only obtained by plundering traditional burial places. And here, the chapter draws attention to the dangers that would-be collectors of the first half of the nineteenth century risked in many parts of mainland Australia and the Torres Strait due to the fact that Indigenous communities continued to have largely undisturbed ownership and control of their ancestral country.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TasmaniaLauncestonAustralia
  2. 2.University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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