In the nineteenth century, allied to anatomy and biology, natural scientists developed the field of physical anthropology and attempted to study physical types comparatively by taking measurements of human bodies, particularly of skulls. Since some decades, however, the anthropology of evolution or history of man as a biological entity also includes modern genetic analysis. But in those days raw data collected through body-measuring anthropometry allowed evolutionists to combine ‘race’ with culture and to classify man. In consequence, they defined ‘races’ set into a hierarchy of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races. The category of ‘race’, in fact, contradicted the values of European Enlightenment. Today, the concept of ‘race’ is outdated.
With commitment and taking their chance under the cover of darkness, European mountaineers acted as ‘headhunters’ in Uyum Nager, the capital of the then semi-independent kingdom of Nager, situated right opposite Hunza in the Karakoram. About half a year after the Hunza/Nager campaign of 1891 undertaken by forces of the British colonial empire, the British explorer and climber Sir Martin Conway (1856-1937), ‘the greatest mountaineer of his day’, headed an ambitious expedition to the Karakoram not only to explore the Hispar route to Shigar in Baltistan, but also the possibilities of future rail traffic crossing the mountain ridges. On 14 June 1892, in Uyum Nager, even before the official audience with the local ruler, king Zafar Khan, he investigated the old graveyard adjacent to the fortified village. In his travelogue Climbing and Exploration in the Karakoram-Himalayas (London 1894) Conway later noted nonchalantly:
In the afternoon of the first day I went out for a stroll, and climbed the steep face of the moraine above the polo-ground, and so came out on the open space east of the town. It is riddled and burrowed into with graves of all ages. The ends, sides, or roofs of many of them are fallen in, and bones protruded constantly. I noted down two such open graves in what seemed to be the oldest part of the burial-ground; there were skulls in them. Two of these skulls arrived safely in England, and are now in the museum at Cambridge.
Following Conway’s instruction, his expedition members Arthur McCormick (1860-1943) and Oscar Johannes Eckenstein (1859-1921) then looted the graveyard and took out two human skulls – a despicable sacrilegious act with which these early visitors reciprocated for the hospitality offered by the Nagerkuts. The British illustrator and painter McCormick confessed in detail in his travelogue An Artist in the Himalayas (London 1895):
Jack [Oscar Johannes Eckenstein] and I in the dead of night ascended to his place to collect skulls. I had marked out two which I thought could be easily got at without being observed from the town. We felt rather nervous, not from any feeling of seeing ghosts, but of the natives seeing us, so, while Jack watched, I explored with my arm among the débris of broken timber and stones, of which the graves had been built, and got two skulls which were almost perfect. Shaking the sand and dust out, we tied them up in handkerchiefs, and stealthily returned to camp. Conway packed and sealed them up in a box, and the next morning sent them on to Gilgit.
In his travel book, Conway also includes a drawing by McCormick about this theft. Hermann Kreutzmann, a German geographer, who reproduced this picture full-size in his book Hunza Matters (Wiesbaden 2020), critically comments: ‘Arthur McCormick did not mind sketching his and his companion’s breach of decency and hospitality during the night before the reception by tham Zafar Zahid Khan in Uyum Nagar.’ The two stolen skulls, a male and a female one, ended in the Cambridge University Collection and were numbered 1204 and 1205 respectively in the Cambridge catalogue. An article on the ‘description of two skulls from Nagyr’ was subsequently published in 1894 by W. Laurence H. Duckworth (In: The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 28: 121-134). In the Golden Age of Physical Anthropology, which lasted until about the mid-twentieth century, it was common for museums and private collectors to amass skulls from all continents. An exemplary case is the German painter and Darwinist, Max Gabriel von Max (1840-1915), who possessed one of the largest collections of skulls world-wide, in total more than 60,000 objects (including some mummies), now mostly belonging to the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany. Having said that, it is no wonder that also other explorers, such as G.W. Leitner, Sir Aurel Stein and D.L.R. Lorimer, indulged in taking anthropometric data of Burusho and Dards in what is now Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan (also Nagerkuts among them), although – as far as I know – they refrained from ‘collecting’ any human skeletal remains.
The various skulls stolen from what is now northern Pakistan should be returned in due course and with proper respect to the concerned indigenous communities. At least in case of the two sculls from Uyum Nager, it can be accurately determined from which graveyard they were stolen. Thus, in July 2021, I took up the thread to find their whereabouts in England first approaching the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge, UK, which, however, does not keep any documents about the skulls in question. Next I approached Dr. Trish Biers, curator of The Duckworth Laboratory at the Centre of Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge. She immediately responded on 12 July 2021 that the case would be examined. Three months later I inquired. Dr. Biers responded on 14 October 2021 and apologized that the institution could not function properly due to the pandemic Corona crisis as well as change of directorship. She further wrote ‘we do have the human remains you are interested in, in our collection’ and added the set phrase: ‘Please understand that requests such as these require extensive research as we have the responsibility to the remains themselves through archival research but also any living descendants and what their wishes are.’ Yes, of course, but I had the whole case painstakingly outlined in writing to the Duckworth Laboratory including the references to the theft as well as the publication of the two skulls. On 18 December 2021, I finally received an e-mail by the new director, Dr. Emma Pomeroy, who promised that ‘the Duckworth Laboratory will undertake a thorough search of the archives’, followed by the formulaic statement: ‘The University of Cambridge is open to any potential enquiry regarding the transfer of stewardship of human remains in the Duckworth Laboratory. Enquiries should be submitted to the University’s Registrary.’ Given this buttoned answer and lack of initiative, the restitution of the stolen remains from Uyum Nager appears to become an administrative ordeal.
(excerpt from Jürgen Wasim Frembgen’s newly published ethnographic monograph At the Foot of the Fairy Mountain. The Nagerkuts of the Karakoram/Northern Pakistan, published 2022 in Berlin by Reimer)