University returns nine human skulls to Sri Lankan tribe

An elder from an ancient Sri Lankan tribe has visited Scotland to collect human remains that will be returned to his homeland.

Wanniya Uruwarige, chief of the jungle-dwelling Vedda people, attended the special ceremony in traditional dress and received the nine human skulls at the University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library.

The skulls were acquired by the university more than 100 years ago, were kept in the anatomical collection and used to show how the tribe previously lived as isolated tropical rainforest foragers.

They are thought to be more than 200 years old.


Chief Uruwarige said: “The dead are very important in Vedda society. Every year we hold a special ceremony to honour those who are no longer with us.

“Even though these remains have been in Edinburgh for many years, their spirits have remained with us in Sri Lanka.

“This reuniting of spirits and physical remains – for which I thank the university – is a very special moment for my people.”

It comes after a study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Science of Human History in Germany, conducted with colleagues in Edinburgh, which confirmed the Vedda’s claim as some of Sri Lanka’s earliest inhabitants.

Wanniya Uruwarige
Wanniya Uruwarige

Due to land loss and civil war, the Vedda have suffered major disruption to their way of life.

Researchers have suggested the traditional life of the group could become extinct within two generations.

Professor Tom Gillingwater, chairman of anatomy at the university, said: “We are delighted to welcome the Vedda tribespeople to Edinburgh and mark the return of their ancestral remains.

“Our vast and diverse collection is often used in research breakthroughs and teaching.

“We are pleased to be able to return these culturally-important artefacts to help ensure the Vedda’s legacy endures for generations to come.”