American Museum of Natural History Admits 12,000 Human Skeletons on Display Were Robbed From Graves of Indigenous People, Will be Removed

By: Lauren Fokas | Last updated: Nov 01, 2023

A recent announcement from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City explained it will be pulling 12,000 human remains from its displays.

In the announcement, the museum’s president explained that some of the skeletons were one Indigenous and enslaved people and that they plan to give back thousands of remains, as well as investigate where the others actually came from.

The American Museum of Natural History Currently Has 1,200 Skeletons in Question

For years, the American Museum of Natural History has displayed over 1,200 human remains for its visitors to learn from.

Photo of human remains at the American Museum of Natural History

Source: Flickr

However, information has come to light that suggests many of these skeletons were actually Native Americans and enslaved Black Americans who did in no way “donate” their remains to science.


The Skeletons May Have Been Robbed From Graves

Sadly, it seems that many, if not all of these 1,200 remains may actually have been robbed from the graves of Native American and enslaved people around the country.

Native American community cemetery at Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico

Source: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Of course, robbing graves for skeletons is not only completely immoral, it’s also wildly illegal.

Robbing Native American Graves Became So Common an Organization Was Created to Stop It

It’s incredibly disappointing to report that the practice of robbing Native American graves became so common that an organization needed to be created to protect them.

Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act Logo

Source: U.S. Department of the Interior

Today, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) works tirelessly to ensure all stolen human remains from Native American graves are returned to their resting places.

NAGPRA Has Already Worked with the American Museum of Natural History

Several years ago, NAGPRA contacted the American Museum of Natural History and asked it to return its illegally obtained Native American human remains.

Illustration from 1800 of Native Americans

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But apparently, the museum only returned 1,000 of the 2,200 remains it had on display, keeping the other 1,200 remains now in question.

Some of the Bones Are Suspected to Have Been Stolen From a Manhattan Cemetery of Enslaved People

While many of the 1,200 remaining skeletons may belong to Native Americans, several academics argue they some could have also been taken from a Manhattan cemetery that housed former slaves.

Black Seminole cemetery in Texas

Source: Andrew Lichtensein/Getty Images

Apparently, in 1903, a collection of skeletons were stolen from the cemetery by construction workers and then mysteriously misplaced.


No Legal Acts Exist to Protect Remains of America’s Enslaved

Unfortunately, there is no organization such as NAGPRA to ensure the remains of previously enslaved Americans are returned to their original resting places.

1800 Illustration of enslaved people picking cotton on a plantation

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Museum president Sean Decatur explained why this reality is especially disappointing: “The legacy of dehumanizing Black bodies through enslavement continues after death in how those bodies were treated and dehumanized in service of a scientific project.


Mysterious Third Set of Skeletons Also Needs Investigation

Researchers believe they know which remains were taken from the Manhattan cemetery of the enslaved and which belonged to Native Americans, but there is a third set that also needs to be investigated.

Professional hands clean human skeleton

Source: Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

So far, they believe that the 400 skeletons in question were once impoverished people of New York City who died in the 1940s, but researchers are eager to find out who they really were.


Sean Decatur Explained Exactly Why Removing the Bones Is So Important

President of the American Museum of Natural History Sean M. Decatur spoke to the press to explain in his own words why this action is so important.

Sean Decatur

Source: Linkedin

“None of the items on display are so essential to the goals and narrative of the exhibition as to counterbalance the ethical dilemmas presented by the fact that human remains are in some instances exhibited alongside and on the same plane as objects,” Decatur said.


Most Historians Agree They Need to Understand Where These Bones Came From

Decatur certainly isn’t alone in his assessment, as most historians agree it’s completely essential they know exactly where these bones came from

Organized piles of human skulls and bones

Source: Lane Montgomery/Getty Images

Historian Cole Thompson told the press, “I felt like the bones should be repatriated.” And Decatur said it perfectly when he said, “Figuring out the answers to exactly what we have here, and how to actually describe that as completely as we can, is something that is important to do moving forward.”


Without the Human Skeletons, the American Museum of Natural History Still Has Plenty of Displays

Most people are incredibly proud of Decatur and the museum’s decision to remove all human remains until they find out exactly where they came from.

People walk in front of dinosaur bones at American Museum of Natural History

Source: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

And fans of the American Museum of Natural History will still have a wide variety of interesting and informative displays to enjoy in the meantime.


Will the Skeletons Be Returned to the Museum?

Sean Decatur has not yet announced if any of the human remains will be returned to their display after their investigation is complete.

People look at displays at American Museum of Natural History

Source: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

However, it’s likely that the only human skeletons that will be shown in the museum will be those that have been explicitly donated to science or can be verified as not having belonged to Native American or enslaved people.