France returns first Maori head to New Zealand

Mon May 9, 2011 11:54am EDT
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By Vicky Buffery

ROUEN (Reuters Life!) - France on Monday handed back the tattooed, mummified head of a Maori tribesman to New Zealand authorities, marking the end of a years-long struggle by the Maori people to bring home their dead and lay them to rest.

Spiritual leaders chanted traditional laments to celebrate the restitution and rubbed noses with officials in Rouen, where the relic or "Toi Moko" had been kept since 1875 when it was given to the Natural History Museum by a private collector.

The head, believed to be that of a Maori warrior killed in battle, is the first of 16 that are to be sent back to New Zealand by next year after France passed a law in 2010 stating the remains should be allowed to return home.

"While Toi Moko have been curiosities for the public to enjoy, they are still our ancestors," said Michelle Hippolyte, a Maori spiritual leader and co-director of the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington where the head will now be transported.

"This journey is about reuniting the Toi Moko with his homeland," she told reporters.

In a sign of respect, the head was kept hidden during the ceremony, and draped with a Maori ceremonial cloak, but a 3D digital model was displayed to show the markings, thought to symbolize status and nobility.

First discovered by explorers in the 18th century, Toi Moko became the object of a particularly barbaric trade in subsequent years due to the curiosity of European collectors and explorers.

While the markings were typically reserved for free men and warriors, in some cases Maori slaves were tattooed and immediately decapitated in order to meet a growing illicit demand for the exotic oddities.   Continued...

<p>A three-dimensional view of a Maori head, realized during the head's modelling, is seen in this handout given by Rouen Museum on May 9, 2011. REUTERS/AFT 3DARTS/Sebastien VAREA/Handout</p>