The identification and restitution of human remains from an Aché girl named "Damiana": an interdisciplinary approach

Ann Anat. 2013 Oct;195(5):393-400. doi: 10.1016/j.aanat.2013.06.005. Epub 2013 Jul 24.


In June 2010, the postcranial skeleton of an adolescent girl was returned by the Natural History Museum of La Plata, Argentina, to the Aché community in Paraguay. In March 2011 the missing skull was identified in the anatomical collection of Charité in Berlin. We initiated a historical and anthropological investigation to confirm the identity of the human remains and to reconstruct the fate of the individual in question in its historical context. Anthropological publications from Argentina had indicated that the girl named "Damiana" was abducted by colonising settlers in Southern Paraguay in 1897 at the age of 3-4 years, later taken to La Plata in Argentina where she grew up as a "maidservant", and died in 1907 of "galloping consumption". In accordance with these reports, the present palaeopathological investigation confirms tuberculous meningitis as a likely cause of death. It also demonstrates some markers of "stress", the nature of which, however, is difficult to determine. Surviving letters and publications by Berlin anatomist Hans Virchow reveal that the girl's preserved head was sent from La Plata to Berlin in January 1908 for comparative investigations in the context of the racial theories of the time. We were convinced that the justified wishes of the Aché community to bury these remains alongside those restituted in 2010 outweighed any future scientific interest in these remains. In April 2012, the skull and two related specimens were returned from the Charité to the Aché community, mediated by the Paraguayan ambassador in Berlin.

Keywords: Aché people; Anthropological collections; Colonial period; Hans Virchow; Human remains; Restitution.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology*
  • Cause of Death
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Indians, South American
  • Museums
  • Scalp / pathology
  • Skull / pathology
  • Tongue / pathology
  • Tuberculosis, Meningeal