Since the mid-1990’s several claims for the return of the Mapungubwe human remains were made by indigenous communities, while some archaeologists felt that a pro-active process for repatriation should be initiated. The National Heritage Resource Act (Act 25 of 1999) made repatriation possible, but no regulations setting a procedure were promulgated. In 2004, Draft Regulations were circulated by the South African Heritage Resource Act. Comments raised in reply were used by the Department of Anatomy (UP) to develop a repatriation policy. During this time the Deputy Minister of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism was tasked by the President to arrange the repatriation of all the Mapungubwe remains (including associated sites). She established a Steering Committee consisting of various stakeholders: institutions holding remains, communities claiming the remains and Government institutions with a stake in heritage and conservation. Important compromises were achieved: although all Mapungubwe human remains were repatriated, they were buried in sealed containers in tomb structures on principal sites in hope that they would be well preserved and be available for future research. No samples for destructive analyses (DNA, chemical) prior to re-burial were, however, allowed. All the remains, apart from those from Schroda, were documented (Buikstra and Ubelaker, 1994). The remains were sealed in plastic bags and packed in high density foam in 143 PVC containers (one individual per box) which were welded shut to achieve an airtight seal. The involvement of politicians and government officials confounded the process (e.g., due to internal issues, the ceremonial part of the reburial was cancelled) and better results would have been achieved had the holding institutions followed a pro-active approach and initiated discussions with the claimant communities directly, rather than wait until they were forced to engage on politically motivated terms.
Poster presented at the University of Pretoria Health Sciences Faculty Day, August 2008, Pretoria, South Africa.