The remains of 138 indigenous people from the Torres Strait Islands are set to be repatriated after they were removed at the behest of a missionary during the 19th century, London's Natural History Museum
said on Thursday.
The museum agreed to return the skeletal remains to the islands, situated between the northern coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea, after holding talks with indigenous leaders and the Australian government over the last 18 months.
Ned David, a representative of the Torres Strait Islands (TSI) community, said islanders were "deeply touched" by the decision to repatriate the ancestral remains, most of which were removed from a cave locals held sacred.
"The return of our ancestors... is a key step in the healing process for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from injustices committed against our people in the past," he said in a statement on Thursday.
"This decision has been received with much emotion," he said, adding that it was a breakthrough for a museum to recognize the TSI community's need to lay its ancestors to rest.
Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, said he was pleased the museum had been able to work closely with the TSI community for the first time.
"Trustees acknowledged the strong feelings of connection of the community to the remains and noted the continued responsibility by the community for the care of the remains," he said in a statement on Thursday.
The museum, which bought the remains from a dealer in 1884 but could not date them, said their return would be the largest repatriation of remains to Australia yet.
The Natural History Museum is home to a collection of around 20,000 human remains including teeth, hair, bones and entire skeletons, some of which date back to the prehistoric era.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin, editing by Paul Casciato)