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African invasion of the bodysnatchers


Courtesy Wikipedia 9591-von-luschan
Felix von Luschan had close contact with an experienced grave robber.

Imagine a foreign people entering your country and desecrating the graves of your ancestors. They then transport the body parts to their homeland for the purpose of ‘proving’ the inferiority and animal-like nature of your people. As appalling as it may sound, such a practice was common among scientists for many decades after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

In the early 1990s several articles drew attention to the murder and ‘bodysnatching’ of the Australian Aborigines that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.1,2,3

According to one researcher, “…the graves of between 5000 and 10,000 Australian Aborigines were desecrated, their bodies dismembered or parts stolen to support a scientific trade.”4 What many do not realize is this was not a geographically isolated phenomenon, but was occurring simultaneously in the German colonies in Africa, especially at the request of prominent racial scientists in Germany.

Felix von Luschan

If there were one German scientist most responsible for the trafficking of body parts in Africa it was Felix von Luschan. Though allegedly a monogenist (i.e. believing in a single origin for humans, as the Bible teaches) and often portrayed as an anti-racist, such views of Von Luschan’s, however, must have been only theoretical. He was a strong proponent of social Darwinism, especially in regard to the colonial institutions in Africa and the South Pacific to which he had strong connections.

“The brotherhood of man,” wrote von Luschan, “is a good thing, but the struggle for life is a far better one.”5

One of von Luschan’s close contacts in Namibia was an experienced grave robber—Lieutenant Ralph Zurn, who on one occasion before the German war against the Herero people, ordered his men to exhume skulls from Herero graves at Okahandja.6 At the request of von Luschan, Zurn (when he returned to Germany) donated a Herero skull to von Luschan’s massive skull collection and eagerly aided von Luschan in his pursuit to procure more skulls from those that died in the Herero war.7

Von Luschan was also instrumental in procuring skulls from German East Africa.8

The Germans often acquired these skulls with the aid of the natives—sometimes paying as little as a piece of soap, and in other regions, paying a full day’s wage.9 The Maji Maji War provided von Luschan with the best opportunity to acquire skulls. To the Governor of East Africa, von Luschan wrote:

I devotedly allow myself to inquire if there exists any possibility that the skulls might be dug up and sent to Berlin. If the opportunity to rescue for science a freshly severed head ever presents itself again, I would be most grateful if these heads would be treated with formaldehyde or in another appropriate way and sent to the Royal Museum. It would be of great scientific value if soft parts, especially the various tattoos, could be saved for posterity in a secure and unproblematic way.10

Von Luschan had an intimate knowledge of what was occurring in the German colonies and let few opportunities slip through the cracks.

He wanted body parts from New Guinea (then a German colony), but that proved very difficult. However, some of the residents of New Guinea had been recruited to fight for Germany in East Africa. So he tried to get his specimens from the bodies of those killed in combat, though he only succeeded in obtaining two skeletons that way.11

Another means of acquiring the data for racial studies was through the colonial exhibitions. Each of the German colonies, in Africa and the South Pacific, recruited native people for ‘freak shows’ or ‘ethnological exhibitions’, at which the people in Germany were supposed to witness for themselves the ‘inferiority’ of blacks. Herero people arriving in Germany were made to discard their uniforms in the case of the men, and the Victorian dresses of the women. The Herero had adopted this European dress when they had converted to Christianity but were made to wear ‘primitive’ clothing for the exhibitions.12

Wikimedia commons/Matt Crypto 9591-skull-mkwawa
Rudolf Virchow had in his possession the skull of Mkwawa, the tribal leader of the Wahehe in East Africa. It is now on display at Mkwawa Memorial Museum in Tanzania.

These also provided racial scientists in Germany with living material to study. Every native performer was required to let anthropologists measure their skulls and almost every other body part. Many of the natives refused to be measured, and refused to be photographed in their native attire, much to the indignation of von Luschan.

One native who was uncooperative was Bismarck Bell, a Cameroonian from the Duala tribe, whom von Luschan called, “A delightful original and an incomparable mixture of idiot and ‘trouser-nigger’.”13

The colonial exhibitions also provided German scientists with the fresh corpses they so desired when native people died. On one occasion all the Inuit performers died of smallpox, and scientists kept their performance props and at least one skull.14 And at the exhibition of 1896 two natives from Africa died and the plan was for von Luschan to obtain the whole skeleton and Wilhelm Waldeyer to obtain the brains and other soft parts. Whether they actually obtained the bodies, though, is uncertain.15

Rudolf Virchow

Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine 9591-rudolf-virchow
Rudolf Virchow engaged numerous people to ship him freshly severed heads.

Another culprit in the trafficking of human skulls was Rudolf Virchow who, though he opposed Darwin’s mechanism of evolution (preferring Lamarck’s16), was a thorough-going materialist. He once said, “I have dissected thousands of corpses, but found no soul in any.”17

Virchow encouraged travellers to collect from prisons, battlefields, hospitals, and executions not only bones but salted skin and dried hands.18 He also encouraged travellers to ship to Berlin freshly severed heads. He preferred that the heads be shipped in zinc containers filled with alcohol, otherwise the removal of most of the flesh was necessary before shipping!19

In one of his lectures, Virchow expressed generous humanitarian feeling towards the natives, after which, without any sense of contradiction or impropriety, he told a story of how he acquired some of his skulls:

Thanks to the precious help of the government and of some travellers, I have been able to obtain until now some dozen skulls from our Eastern and Western African colonies…Dr. Stuhlmann investigated on a spot where a fight took place between two tribes. One of his assistants collected a certain number of heads on the scene, packed them in a bag and had them carried on the back of a boy to Zanzibar. As one could expect, they banged and bumped against each other during the trip, and their condition, when they arrived in Berlin, left a lot to be desired. Such are the conditions with which one has to reckon.20

Virchow possessed an enormous skull collection, which included the skull of Mkwawa—the tribal leader of the Wahehe in East Africa who committed suicide to avoid capture by the Germans.21 Shortly after his death his head was removed and shipped to Germany where it remained until its return in 1954. Today, the Berlin Museum of Natural History holds more than 6,000 human skulls, which includes Virchow’s collection as well as a portion of von Luschan’s.22

Eugen Fischer

Eugen Fischer was a prominent figure in German anthropology. He played a major role in the Third Reich, and was even appointed by Hitler as rector of the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin.

Courtesy of Eugenics Archive [Fair use] 9591-eugen-fischer
Eugen Fischer asked for the ears and other body parts of the deceased.

Fischer was a staunch Darwinian as well as a racist and avid eugenicist. Before his days in the Nazi regime, Fischer conducted racial studies in South-West Africa to try to prove that inter-racial breeding was detrimental to society.23 Fischer had a strong interest in acquiring native body parts, but only succeeded in obtaining this material shortly before his return to Germany. According to Fischer,

I searched eagerly to find traces of the graves. Two Cape Boys served as my carriage driver and digger; I wanted to avoid using native Nama or Herero, since they would probably have found it too painful that—for scientific reasons that they would not have understood—we disturbed the peace of their buried compatriots … . Suddenly we stood before the melancholic image of the burial ground. A number of flat rocks … were placed deep in the sand, in uneven rows, so that only about 20 centimetres reached out of the sand. The pale, gray, deep-hanging sky … set the appropriately eerie mood for us shivering men. The dead were only about half a metre deep in the sand, lying in a supine position with their feet towards the water … . With closed eyelids there was a serene peace about the hollow Nama faces.24

In 1914 Fischer also requested from the colonial authorities in Windhoek (i.e., central Namibia) that the ears and other body parts of dead prisoners be sent to him at the University of Freiberg. He provided meticulous instructions as to how to sever the desired body parts.25

Other German scientists participated in collecting and shipping Herero and Nama body parts to Germany. The zoologist Leonard Schultze saw the outbreak of the war as an occasion to collect skulls, “I could make use of the victims of the war and take parts from fresh native corpses.”26 In the concentration camps the body parts of many dead prisoners were collected by military doctors and sold to German universities where racial scientists used them to ‘prove’ the inferiority of the ‘less evolved’ Africans. This belief in racial inferiority of some groups was held by Darwin (despite his staunch abolitionism) as a natural consequence of his theory, and also by his chief promoters in England and the Continent, Thomas Huxley and Ernst Haeckel, respectively. (For a detailed review of how Darwin’s book ‘turbocharged’ scientific racism by orders of magnitude, and how belief in biblical origins served to restrain some of its ugliest manifestations, see One Human Family: The Bible, science, race and culture.)

Another study by a medical student in Berlin analyzed 17 decapitated heads from Nama prisoners and supposedly demonstrated the anatomical similarity between the Nama and the anthropoid ape.27


The trafficking of body parts was commonplace in the German colonies and continued well into the 20th century.

Scientists utilized this material, especially the skulls, in their attempt to prove white supremacy in association with antibiblical theories of evolution. The behavior of those engaged in these inhumane and sacrilegious acts can only be described as reprehensible. The biblical worldview, with its teaching that all humans are descended from one man (Acts 17:26), and were all created in God’s image, provides the only absolute and rational basis for treating all human beings respectfully and as of equal value.

Published: 21 September 2014

References and notes

  1. Monaghan, D., The Body-Snatchers, The Bulletin, 12 Nov 1991, pp. 31–38. Return to text.
  2. Turnbull, P., Science, National Identity and Aboriginal Body Snatching in Nineteenth Century Australia, Working Papers in Australian Studies, University of London, London, pp. 1–15, 1991. Return to text.
  3. Wieland, C., Darwin’s Bodysnatchers, Creation 14 (2): 16–18, March 1992; creation.com/bodysnatch. Return to text.
  4. Ref. 1, p.31. Return to text.
  5. Stone, D., White Men With Low Moral Standards? German Anthropology and the Herero Genocide, Colonialism and Genocide, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 185–186, 2007. Return to text.
  6. Olusoga, D., and Erichsen, C.W., The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide, Faber and Faber, London, p. 127, 2010. Return to text.
  7. Zimmerman, A., Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 244–245, 2001. Return to text.
  8. Consisted of modern Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and part of Mozambique. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 7, p. 161. Return to text.
  10. Ref. 7, pp. 159, 161. Return to text.
  11. Ref. 7, p. 161. Return to text.
  12. Ref. 6, p. 94. Return to text.
  13. Ref. 7, p. 32. Return to text.
  14. Ref. 7, p. 23. Return to text.
  15. Ref. 7, pp. 35, 261 (See footnote 81). Return to text.
  16. In Lamarckian evolution, prior to Mendel’s discovery of the laws of inheritance, inherited changes were supposed to occur from environmental effects; a giraffe stretching its neck repeatedly to get higher leaves was supposed to pass the tendency for longer necks on to its descendants. Unknown to many, Darwin actually made use of that (since largely discredited) concept in some editions of his book. Return to text.
  17. Szasz, T., Reply to Simon, Szasz Under Fire: A Psychiatric Abolitionist Faces His Critics, Open Court, Chicago, p. 220, 2004. Return to text.
  18. Ref. 7, p. 158. Return to text.
  19. Zimmerman, A., Adventures in the Skin Trade: German Anthropology and Colonial Corporeality, Worldly Provincialism: German Anthropology in the Age of Empire, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, pp. 167, 168, 2003. Return to text.
  20. Massin, B., From Virchow to Fischer, Volksgeist as Method and Ethic, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, p. 95, 1996. Return to text.
  21. Conrad, S., German Colonialism: A Short History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 132, 2012. Return to text.
  22. Ref. 7, p. 160. Return to text.
  23. Haas, F., German Science and Black Racism—Roots of the Nazi Holocaust, The FASEB Journal, 22, p. 334, Feb. 2008. Return to text.
  24. Erichsen, C., Skullduggery and Necrophilia in Colonial Namibia, Pambazuka News, 577, 20 March 2012. Return to text.
  25. Ref. 21. Return to text.
  26. Ref. 6, p. 245. Return to text.
  27. Ref. 6, p. 358. Return to text.

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