Skulls of Bahians become center of fight for ‘racist heritage’ in Sweden

Eight Bahian skulls make up a collection of almost 800 that are stored at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the same responsible for electing the winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The remains were used in studies associated with theories of scientific racism, which sought to “prove” a supposed superiority of the white man.

The experiments were carried out during the 19th and 20th centuries by the Swedes Anders and Gustaf Retzius, father and son. They sought to make an association between the size and anatomy of the skull with a greater degree of intellectual elevation.

To do this, they ransacked tombs around the world. In the case of Bahian skulls, they were sent to the Karolinska Institute by the English anatomy professor Jonathan Abbot between the years 1847 and 1850. Abbot lived in Salvador, where he worked as chief surgeon at the Santa Casa de Misericórdia hospital.

The correspondence exchanged between Abbot and the Swedes shows that six of these eight skulls are of Brazilian indigenous people killed during an armed conflict between indigenous groups and settlers in the interior of Bahia, in the late 1840s.

The other two are Africans who were enslaved at that time.

“The letters reveal that Anders Retzius had a specific interest in obtaining skulls from the Brazilian indigenous population. But Jonathan Abbot also sent two skulls belonging to enslaved Africans in the region,” Professor Olof Ljungström, head of the Research and Documentation Unit of the region, told BBC Brazil Karolinska Institute’s anatomy collections.

‘Racist heritage’
Two centuries later, the institution’s students, reports BBC Brasil, are demanding not only a public apology, but also the immediate removal of the names of Anders and Gustaf Retzius from the institute’s rooms and laboratories named in their honor.

The struggle of this student movement began in 2014, but gained strength last year after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the United States.

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