Old catalogues show that university once held 57 skulls and six skeletons from Sami, an indigenous people whose homeland covers large parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, but accurately identifying the remains is proving to be a major task.
“The problem is finding this material in the big pile of bones we have,” Geoffrey Metz, who is leading the project, told The Local.
The Sami bones are mixed up with other remains, including those of prisoners whose bodies were given to the university by the state, a practice that continued until the 1950s.
The university has so far identified two skulls likely to be Sami. They were dug up in a churchyard in Rounala in 1915 and are believed to be the remains of people who lived in the 13th century. They are to be sent to the Áttje Sami Museum in Jokkmokk, northern Sweden. But there remain some question marks over even these bones:
“They could also be the remains of Swedish settlers,” Metz said.
Many of the Sami remains were used to test theories on the differences between races. Uppsala was home to Sweden’s infamous state institution for racial biology research until it closed in the 1950s:
“Racial biology researchers were interested in researching the differences between Swedes and Samis,” Metz said. The researchers used now-discredited racial theories to justify the forced sterilization of Sami people and the plundering of graves for remains to use in experiments.
The fate of even ancient Sami remains such as those from Rounala are a sensitive topic for Sami communities due both to historical injustices and Sami cultural attitudes to human corpses. Many feel that the bones’ continued presence in state and university collections symbolize colonialism and the historic repression of the Sami people.
While many of the Uppsala remains are old, some of those listed in the university’s ledger are considerably more recent, including one from a Sami prisoner who died in the 1890s. The ledger records the prisoner’s age and the prison in which he died, but not his name. It has so far not been possible to identify the prisoner’s corpse:
“It would be fantastic to return a skeleton like that to the family,” Geoffrey Metz told The Local.
Metz says non-Sami remains held by the university, such as those of prisoners, have not generated the same level of controversy:
“But we have started discussing what to do if we get a request from a Swedish family whose great-grandfather ended up on the slab.”