Indigenous skeleton discovered at Philly school, will be repatriated with help from Temple

The district says it’s conducting a search for any other potentially forgotten remains.

Central High School at 1700 W. Olney Ave.

Central High School at 1700 W. Olney Ave.

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Skeletal remains identified as having belonged to an Indigenous adult man have been discovered inside Central High School, according to the School District of Philadelphia. The remains were likely used as a teaching tool sometime between the 1850s and the early-to-mid 1900s, per a district statement.

The discovery was revealed on Friday. In a public statement, the district said no human skeletons have been used for education in Philly schools for at least a decade, though it did not provide an end date or reference to an official policy reflecting this.

A Central High staffer found the remains, which the district called a “human skeletal item,” in June 2021 and brought the discovery to the school district’s office of general counsel, spokesperson Christina Clark said in an email.

From there, said Clark, the district notified the U.S. Department of the Interior and engaged anthropological experts to take next steps.

District officials connected with Temple University Anthropology Chair Kimberly Williams to identify and properly handle the skeletal remains. They’re still working to verify the age and race of the remains, but believe that they did belong to an Indigenous adult man “[b]ased on the expertise of our partners,” Clark said.

The adult male skeleton was acquired in the 1800s, Williams told Billy Penn, “during a time in history… that human crania were being acquired for scientific research.” Specifically, Williams said, researchers would collect skulls to study the difference between races, a practice she called “unequivocally wrong and unacceptable.”

“This is part of the story of early medicine around the world,” Williams said, “where the deceased entered collections without their consent, from cemeteries and other contexts.”

Philadelphia has had a fraught relationship with mishandled human remains recently, including the discovery of unaccounted for MOVE bombing victim remains at Penn Museum and in the city Medical Examiner’s Office.

The school district plans to enact a search of other schools for potentially forgotten skeletons once used for teaching, with results reported back by Nov. 1, according to The Inquirer.

Williams advised the district that finding human skeletons in a high school teaching collection is uncommon, Clark said. “Central High School is unique because of its history and the faculty who taught there during the 1800s and early 1900s,” she continued. “In that sense, this discovery is not that unusual at Central.”

According to a 2018 report by NPR, “a lot of classroom skeletons, in high schools, universities and medical schools, are real.”

Indigenous people have historically been the victims of mishandled remains, especially after being forced into government-run assimilation schools. The remains of nearly 200 Indigenous children who attended one such school in Carlisle, Pa., in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were disinterred this summer, and are being returned to relatives.

Williams, the Temple archaeology chair, will help the district determine and locate the man’s native tribe, with the goal of returning the remains, a process she said “will take some time.” Williams’ academic work is focused on funeral landscape excavations and uses, and she often studies recovered skeletal remains, according to her biography.

Earlier this year, the revelation that human skeletal remains from the 1985 MOVE bombing had been held by researchers at Penn Museum for more than two decades led to a series of events that culminated in the resignation of ex-city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. Those remains, thought to belong to at least one child killed in the bombing, had been used in a teaching video for an online course at Princeton.

Penn Museum also this year announced the repatriation of its Morton Cranial Collection after a push from researchers, anthropologists and community members. The collection was made up of the skulls of Black Americans collected in the 1800s and “used to justify white supremacist views” through scientific racism.

Williams praised the unnamed individuals at Central who “identified these remains as problematic and contacted the appropriate office” to begin an investigation.

“Despite the fact that this individual is long deceased,” Williams said, “they were an individual who was a member of a community.”

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