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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
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Greenland mummies begin journey home from Harvard University

Five estimated 500-year-old Inuit mummies, transferred from Greenland to Harvard University by an American anthropologist, are now in Denmark after a swift repatriation process, the Greenland National Museum said.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — After a nearly 100-year stay in the United States, the mummified remains of five Inuit Greenlanders, estimated to date back to the 16th century, are returning home.

On Friday, the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Forensic Medicine received boxes containing the five Greenlandic mummies. They included four young adults and one child from an Inuit community that once lived on the island of Uunartoq in southern Greenland.

In 1929, American anthropologist Martin Luther transferred 15 mummies from a grave in Uunartoq to Harvard University, ostensibly for research purposes. Only five survived the bumpy trip.

On Thursday, Harvard University returned the mummies after a 2019 repatriation request from the government of Greenland, which is itself an autonomous territory of Denmark.

“We have had a good dialogue, and it has been very fast to get them back,” Daniel Thorleifsen, director of the Greenland National Museum & Archives, told Greenland broadcaster KNR.

With a handover process lasting about five years, Thorleifsen praised the repatriation as speedy. Stakeholders included the U.S. and Greenland governments, as well as ethical committees.

“The Greenland National Museum is of the view that all human remains such as mummies, skulls and other bone material originating in Greenland should be returned to Greenland, where they belong,” he said. “For ethical reasons, Greenland itself must have control over what happens to these human remains, which must be treated respectfully and with care.”

Paradoxically and for precisely that reason, the remains won't be returning to Greenland itself anytime soon.

The arctic island does not yet have the necessary equipment to store the mummies under optimal conditions. That is why Greenland's National Museum has asked the University of Copenhagen, which is already storing similar remains, to house them for now.

The mummies first sparked interest in Greenland in 2019 when it became public that Harvard University was conducting CT scans of the five mummies in an effort to research what effects the Inuit diet has on blood flow.

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids consisting mostly of fish and marine mammals, researchers long believed that Inuit foodways were heart-healthy. However, the Harvard study found proof of clogged arteries in the 500-year-old mummies — possibly the result of heart damage caused by smoke from indoor fires, the Harvard Medical School stated in a blog post from 2020.

Despite handing over the ancient mummies, Harvard University will continue to research the remains in collaboration with Greenland’s and Denmark’s national museums under a collaborative project known as Angerlartunnguit.

“We have to carry out research ourselves to find out, among other things, whether they have tattoos and what they mean, so that we also gain an understanding of the Inuit culture, how our ancestors lived and what customs and ways of life they had,” Thorleifsen told KNR.

These mummies have special research value, as two of them are males. Previous research has only analyzed female and child mummies.

Additionally, grave gifts were found with the bodies. Among the gifts were bird spears and harpoon points, Christian Koch Madsen told KNR. As deputy head and inspector at Greenland's National Museum, Madsen escorted the mummies from the U.S. to Denmark.

“There is some kayak equipment for the children, [as well as] extra clothes," Madsen told the outlet. "They have brought some woven grass baskets, which is a tradition that is still practiced in South Greenland today."

After spending the weekend acclimatizing at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Forensic Medicine, researchers will open the mummy boxes on Monday. The first tests on the remains will happen then.

For researchers like Madsen, it's good to know the mummies are finally on their way back home.

“We have been working for this for five years. We have done research in the caves where they were found," Madsen said. "It's great to be able to see them."

Follow @LasseSrensen13
Categories / History, International, Science

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