Along the walls of a crumbling Cambridge basement, rows of brown cardboard boxes are packed on cramped wooden shelves. It could be the storeroom of a hardware company were it not for the cartons' strange labels: "Zuni, Fuegian, Saxon."
In fact, each box contains the remains of a human being. Skulls and bones from more than 18,000 men and women are crammed into this unlikely mausoleum. This is the Duckworth Collection, one of the world's most important anthropological resources, a scientific treasure trove dedicated to human variation.
Scientists believe these skeletal remains can be used to trace the history of humanity's colonization of the world and are therefore of immense importance. Yet in a few weeks, a government committee is expected to back legal changes that could result in the collection's decimation.
"There is a real chance some of the most important parts of the Duckworth could be removed and destroyed or put in inaccessible places," said Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Center for Evolutionary Studies, Cambridge.
"The loss to science would incalculable," he said.
This stark threat is posed by the Palmer Committee, set up by the Government following a recent meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Australian counterpart, John Howard. It has been charged with deciding if Britain should succumb to calls from Aboriginal groups who are demanding the return of ancestral remains taken by 19th- and 20th-century expeditions and displayed in British museums
Most researchers fear the committee is about to give an affirmative answer. Indeed, some centers have already given back remains in anticipation of such a recommendation. Two months ago, several skulls kept at the Manchester Museum were handed to Aboriginal leaders at a ceremony which included an antidote to any curses the city may have earned as a result of its sacrilege.
But museums like Manchester's usually possess only a few skeletons. By contrast, the Duckworth -- an exclusively research-oriented center -- is devoted to human remains, and along with London's Natural History Museum, the country's other main repository, has most to lose. Hence the alarm of scientists there.
"This collection is fantastically important. Much of the work that supported the `Out of Africa' theory -- which shows all humans are of recent African origin -- was done by measuring skulls and bones from this collection," said Marta Lahr, director of the Duckworth Collection, which is based at the Leverhulme Center.
"It was the diversity of our samples that made this possible. If we lose our Australasian samples, that will damage the collection irreparably," she said.
But native groups -- of which Australian Aborigines have taken a world lead -- are unrepentant, and dismiss such anthropological research as "pretentious." One of their leaders, Rodney Dillon, said: "Aborigines were not put on this earth for British scientists to do research on."
They point to the case of the Tasmanians, a population exterminated by British colonists, whose remains ended in some cases in museums. The Duckworth possesses three Tasmanian skulls, which Aboriginal groups -- who claim to be the skull owners' descendants -- want back. But as Foley pointed out, the Tasmanians no longer exist, and can have no descendants. For their part, mainland Aborigines claim `cultural ancestry' with the Duckworth skulls.