“A lot of Palauans did not know we have human remains here.”

McMichael Mutok


Alii! (greetings) my name is McMichael Mutok Jr., I am from the sovereign island nation of Palau. I have been working with the Bureau of Cultural and Historical Preservation since November 2017. During my time working with the team in Göttingen, I have learned that there are numerous Palauan human skulls in the Göttingen anthropological collection. Back home I have met the local community and shared about the possibility of repatriation of our Palauan ancestors. This would give the locals a deeper understanding about the colonial collection, the possibility of identifying each skull with DNA research and the handling of these remains. It is my duty to ensure that our Palauan ancestors are to be repatriated to their place of origin as a show of respect, honor and solidarity.

Doing Research

In the archive

“It might take years to find the right information.”

Cover and tow pages from the diary of the ethnologist Paul Hambruch from the so-called South Sea Expedition (1908-1910) 

Paul Hambruch / diary, issue 1 from 10.08. – 19.10.1909, S. 32, 40 / Museum am Rothenbaum Hamburg, MARKK-Archiv SÜD 2.1.1

Finding the important text in the journals written by Paul Hambruch during his field trip at Palau in 1909 is a shocking discovery knowing that the human remains were taken from grave sites in Palau. The section of the paragraph that mentioned in September 09, 1909, Hambruch dug up the skull of a man from Ngarchelong who drowned two years ago. He mentioned that it had to be done secretly that no Palauan would have allowed him to excavate at their sacred grave sites. We were lucky to find this text in the archives of the MARKK in a short period of time; it is like opening up the important piece of the puzzle. There are hundreds of journals that were written from the South Seas Expedition and kept at the Hamburg Museum for more than a hundred years. I bet no Palauan has encountered these journals knowing that they have been here this whole time. The finding changes the way I think about German colonialism in Palau. I, as a Palauan, am lucky to have encountered such text about the German colonial rule in Palau. This would mean that the community must know this important piece of information and more research needs to be done to learn more about our ancestors and its history.

McMichael Mutok

Giving Context


“It’s the first repatriation that’s going to happen in Palau.”

In 1899, Palau became a German colonial territory as part of “Deutsch-Neuguinea”. The group of islands in the Pacific Ocean to the west of the Caroline Islands was a stop on the „South Sea Expedition“ of the “Hamburg Museum für Völkerkunde”, which travelled through the so-called “German South Seas” from 1908 to 1910. Paul Hambruch, ethnologist and later head of the Museum’s South Seas Department, arrived in Palau in the second year of the expedition. The human remains from Palau in Göttingen can be traced back to his actions. His ruthlessness is made clear in a diary entry from 21 September 1910, where he wrote: The excavation of one skull „had to be done secretly, as no Palauman would have allowed the excavation.“ Of the original nine human remains from Palau, seven are still preserved in the Anthropological Collection and two are missing. While four human remains can be relatively clearly attributed to the island of Bur, today’s Pulo Anna, the origin of the other three is still unclear. In the meantime, a request for return has been received from Palau, and in-depth provenance research has been done. In March 2024, all 7 ancestral human remains were returned to Palau. 


28.9.[19]09: morgens 6 [Uhr] nach Uap. Konnten gestern nicht fortkommen, da es schon zu früh dunkelte. Reinige Schädel und packe ein; es sind vorhanden:

Meliel [heute: Merir Island]: 1 Hinterhauptbein
Pur [heute: Pulo Anna]: 2 ganze Obergesichtsschädel, eine Calotte, eine kindliche
vordere Gesichtshälfte.

Pelau: 1 [männl.] Skelett,
1 [weibl.] Schädel, 1 [männl.] Schädel

Uap [heute: Yap]: 1 Calotte
Über etwaigen zukünftigen Erwerb siehe 24./25. Sept. Auf den Karolinen wird der Erwerb wegen der Heilighaltung der Toten ziemlich schwierig sein.

28.9.[19]09: 6 [a.m.] to Uap. Could not get away yesterday as it got dark too early. Clean skull and pack; there are:

Meliel [today: Merir Island]: 1 occipital bone
Pur [today: Pulo Anna]: 2 whole upper skulls, one calotte, one infantile
front half of the face.

Pelau: 1 [male] skeleton,
1 [female] skull, 1 [male] skull

Uap [today: Yap]: 1 calotte
For possible future acquisition, see Sept. 24/25. Acquisition will be quite difficult in the Caroline Islands because of the sanctification of the dead.



„21. Sept.: Grabe morgens Schädel eines vor 2 Jahren ertrunkenen Mannes aus Arecolong aus. Es musste heimlich geschehen, da kein Palaumann die Ausgrabung gestattet hätte.“

„Sept. 21: Excavated skull of a drowned man from Arecolong two years ago in the morning. It had to be done secretly, since no Palau man would have allowed the excavation.“