France Will Return Maori Heads to New Zealand

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Collection of Maori heads, Wikimedia

The French parliament has voted to return at least 15 mummified heads of Maori warriors to New Zealand. The heads are known for intricate facial tattooing, a symbol of strength, courage, and status amongst tribes.

The Maori currently on display in France were first brought to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries to be displayed as exotic oddities. In the early 19th century, westerners began offering firearms in exchange for the heads, and many Maori men were killed so their tattooed heads could be sold as curios and museum specimens.

It is believed that hundreds of similar heads are held in museums and private collections around the world.

"From a ritual showing the respect of a tribe and family toward their dead, the mummified heads became the object of a particularly barbaric trade due to the curiosity of travelers and European collectors," Parliamentary Relations Minister Henri de Raincourt said when he presented the law last week, reported Reuters.

The Maoris, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, believe the preservation of the heads kept their spirits alive. New Zealand has demanded the return of the heads since the 1980s.

According to the BBC, Pita Sharples, New Zealand minister for Maori affairs, said the decision was a "matter of great significance."

"Maori believe that, through their ancestors' return to their original homeland, their dignity is restored, and they can be put to rest in a peace among their families," said Sharples.

The decision is part of a large-scale debate over whether or not artifacts plundered by explorers should be returned to their home countries. The ruling marks the first time French law has authorized the return of an entire category of items, rather than a specific object.

"There are some things which are above art and which should remain sacred," Catherine Morin-Desailly, the Member of Parliament who proposed the bill, told the Associated Press.

Morin-Desailly also said the vote "confirms France's moral responsibility as a country of human rights."

Critics have voiced concerns the return of the Maori heads might set a new precedent, fearing other collections featuring prized mummies and other archaeological treasures may be at risk.

The heads are to be shipped to the Te Papa museum in Wellington before being returned to tribal groups for burial.
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