After 136 years, the skull of chief Ataï has come home. In a moving ceremony in Paris, the remains of this 19th century Kanak warrior have been returned to New Caledonia. On August 28, France’s Overseas Minister George Pau-Langevin, Kanak chief Bergé Kawa and a crowd of descendants and dignitaries attended a ceremony at the Natural History Museum in Paris.
The French state transferred the remains of Ataï and his companion “the sorcerer”, who were killed during a Kanak revolt in 1878. After Ataï’s death, he was beheaded, with the head preserved in a bottle and transferred to the Anthropological Society of Paris.
After examination of his brain, the skull was stored away. Transferred in 1951 to the Museum of Man, it was not revealed again until July 2011. During a 2013 visit to New Caledonia, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault responded to the Kanak call for the repatriation of Ataï’s skull: “The position of the French state is clear – this relic must be returned to New Caledonia and it will be returned.” Ataï has long served as a symbol of Kanak nationalism. Today, images of the warrior chief can be found as graffiti on the walls of Noumea or decorating the T-shirts of young Kanaks, alongside rebels like Eloi Machoro, the Kanak leader shot down by French police in 1985.
After colonisation in 1853, New Caledonia served as a penal colony, with France exiling over 20,000 prisoners to the other side of the globe. After popular revolts in Paris and Algeria in 1871, the survivors of the Paris Commune and Kabyle rebels from the Sahara were also transported to the South Pacific.
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