updated 11/17/2006 9:46:48 AM ET 2006-11-17T14:46:48

The bones of 17 Tasmanian aboriginal people dating back to the early 18th and 19th centuries, part of an extensive collection of human remains at Britain's Natural History Museum, will be returned to Australia.

The museum announced the decision on Friday following a meeting of its board of trustees which considered the request first made 20 years ago under a claim by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center (TAC).

"We will repatriate to the Australian government -- and we are expecting that they will ask us to repatriate them direct to the Tasmanian group -- the remains of 17 humans," said Oliver Stocken, chairman of the board of trustees, at a news conference.

After they are returned to the TAC they will be cremated, in accordance with local customs.

It is the first decision to return exhibits since a new law came into force in Britain last year which allows the repatriation of ancestral remains.

The legislation does not have any bearing on the separate issue of Greece's long-standing demand that the British Museum return the Elgin Marble sculptures.

The Tasmanian exhibits, which are part of the Natural History Museum's collection of more than 19,000 specimens, range from a single tooth to a partially complete skeleton. Little is known about their origins.

Another aboriginal skull which was exported illegally from Australia to Britain in 1913 will also be returned to Australia early next year, along with the other specimens, after researchers at the museum collect scientific data and do a DNA analysis on them.

"This is a landmark decision," said museum director Dr Michael Dixon.

He added the trustees had considered the scientific value of the specimens as well as religious, cultural and ethical concerns.

Professor Richard Lane, science director of the museum, said the remains are particularly important from a scientific perspective because when they were collected in the early 19th century Tasmania was isolated from the rest of the world, so they are genetically different from other human populations.

"This gives us quite a lot of insight into the development of the groups within the Australian aboriginal people," he added. "A huge amount of knowledge can be gained from these specimens."

Dixon said the museum is having discussions with the United States and New Zealand about repatriating other remains but it has not received any formal claims. It may also return other specimens from the collection to Australia.

"We fully expect further claims," he added.

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