The Truth About the African Skulls

France Returned 24 Skulls to Algeria. They Weren’t What They Seemed.

While the news last night of the return of a 24 skull from Algeria was greeted with enthusiasm and hope at the National Geographic offices—the first return since the famous return of the original skull was in 2007—it’s worth looking again at the situation. It’s clear now that many of the rumors circulating on the internet are correct—namely, that the skulls returned were not what they seemed.

When the three skulls were brought back to the US in late December, the press and most of our readers were given the version circulated widely online, which says that when the three skulls were brought back to the US, one was a 3D-printed copy of the original with the skull removed, and that it is a 24th skull. When the skulls were brought home to Algeria, however, they were discovered to come from a larger collection previously lost in a mysterious fire. They included two skulls that are about 1,500 years old, two skulls that are between 1,000 and 1,200 years old, and one skull of between 500 years and 900 years old. A further twenty-seven skulls were found buried under a mausoleum in another burial site, which are said to have no relationship to the three skulls.

The official explanation for the return was that the US and Algeria wanted the three skulls returned to them; they were not returned to science in the first place. They wanted to keep the skull and some of its contents to be studied, and we wanted a DNA sample from the skull for inclusion in an archaeological study. We are not aware of any scientific study involving the original skull or its contents being conducted to date, and no DNA sample has been taken from the skull to date.

As I write this from Los Angeles, two of the three skulls have been prepared as vases and are on display—presumably for display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington—as part of the exhibit “The Truth about the African Skulls.” One of these skull vases is the original, and shows the “fake”

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