The British Natural History Museum has been accused by Tasmanian Aboriginals of "mutilating" the remains of their ancestors. Native Australians say the institution has defiled the 17th-century bones by removing parts for scientific tests.
The dispute centres on 17 skeletons held by the museum in London since the 1940s. Although it has agreed to return the remains in its possession, the museum has been collecting samples from skulls and bones for DNA analysis.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), which brought legal action against the museum Tuesday, complained the tests were "racist" and desecrated the beliefs of the Aboriginal community.
The dead are believed to be "souls in torment" until buried according to Aboriginal custom, which involves being returned to their birthplace and read their last rites.
Michael Mansell, of the TAC said: "The Natural History Museum's tests were 'genetic prospecting' which would desecrate the spiritual beliefs of the community from whom the skulls and bones were taken by grave robbery and by boiling down human flesh.
"They would never dare to do these experiments to the human remains of Jews or Roma or Scots or Manx Islanders. That they intend to mutilate our ancestors without our consent shows that they have not lost the same primitive mindset of the first English settlers, who treated our people as sub-humans."
The museum said it was trying to strike a balance between the scientific value of the research for future generations and the cultural and religious beliefs of indigenous people.