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Ancestral Remains Policy


Like many museums, we care for human ancestral remains as part of our collections.  These came into our collections through our long history of research in anthropology and biology; we now recognize the injustice and harm caused by antiquated collecting practices that viewed ancestral remains primarily as objects of study.  The policy governing the use of our general collections for research, exhibition, and education does not distinguish ancestral remains from other parts of the collection, and does not sufficiently protect the rights and authority of descendant peoples to determine the use, storage, and ultimate fate of their ancestors' remains. In 2022, the Board of Trustees approved a separate Ancestral Remains Policy delineating additional restrictions that are necessary to respectfully manage this special and significant part of our collection.  NHMLAC's Ancestral Remains Policy includes concepts, topics, and language that may be offensive or painful to some readers, including information about the contents of the collection and how human ancestral remains were previously used by the museum. Please continue to the policy only if you want to engage more fully with this content. 



Adopted September 2022


As an institution, we recognize the injustice and harm caused by antiquated collecting practices that viewed ancestral remains primarily as objects of study. We recognize the need for museums to treat ancestral remains with respect, to mitigate harm and correct historic injustice when possible, and to respect the rights and authority of descendant peoples to determine the use, storage, and ultimate fate of their ancestors' remains.

This Ancestral Remains Policy (policy) of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (“NHMLAC” or the “Museum”) operates within the framework of the NHMLAC Collection Policy (Revised May 14, 2010). Due to the significance of ancestral remains within Museum collections, and their separate legal status, they are covered in this discrete policy. This document establishes policies and guidelines for the care and curation of ancestral remains; acquisition, loan, and deaccessioning ancestral remains; and research on and reproduction and display of ancestral remains.

We use the term ancestral remains rather than human remains or skeletal remains to acknowledge that these were once living people that are frequently referred to as ancestors by descendant peoples. The only exception to this is use of the term human remains when referencing specific legal definitions delineated in legislation, such as NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA.


Ancestral Remains: The bodies, and parts of bodies, of once living people from the species Homo sapiens (defined as individuals who fall within the range of anatomically modern Homo sapiens that do not pre-date the Upper Paleolithic Period [~40,000-10,000 kya]). This includes any whole or part of bone and teeth, soft tissue including organs and skin, and embryos. Any of the above items may also be incorporated within non-human materials to form an object. These objects are considered in the same manner as individual ancestral remains. Ancestral remains that are bound up with non-human material to form an object are considered part of that object and will not be separated. The term ancestral remains as defined by this policy does not include those portions of a human body that can reasonably be assumed to have been naturally shed or freely given. This typically includes hair, a common material used in nets and ropes. While teeth can be naturally shed, they are considered ancestral remains for the purposes of this policy.

CalNAGPRA: The California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 2001 (CHSC §§ 8010-30), was passed with the intent to cover gaps in the federal NAGPRA specific to the State of California. In 2020, AB 275 was passed and signed to strengthen CalNAGPRA for non-federally recognized California Native American tribes and elevate the status of tribal traditional knowledge in determining cultural affiliation and identifying cultural items, among other changes to the law. CalNAGPRA runs concurrently with federal NAGPRA (43 CFR § 10). To the extent CalNAGPRA conflicts with federal NAGPRA or its regulations, federal NAGPRA preempts CalNAGPRA.

Consultation: A process involving the exchange of information, open discussion, and joint deliberations with respect to potential issues, changes, or actions by all interested parties (adapted from 43 CFR § 10.2).

Control: Having a legal interest in ancestral remains sufficient to lawfully permit the Museum to treat the objects as part of its collection (adapted from 43 CFR § 10.2).

Cultural affiliation or culturally affiliated: A relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present-day community and an identifiable earlier group. Cultural affiliation is established when the preponderance of the evidence--based on geographical, kinship, biological, archeological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical evidence, or other information or expert opinion--reasonably leads to such a conclusion (adapted from 43 CFR § 10.2).

Descendant peoples: A group of people defined by their genealogical, historical, cultural, and symbolic associations to a person or group of people who lived at an earlier time. The identification of descendant peoples is contingent on the interpretation of social and historical contexts, as well as the self-identification of social groups (adapted from Silliman and Ferguson 2010).

Federally Recognized Tribe: An American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Geographical affiliation or geographically affiliated: A connection between ancestral remains and a present-day individual or community established by reasonably identifying a relationship between the individual or community and a geographical location determined to be the origin of the ancestral remains.

Human Remains: See Ancestral Remains

NAGPRA: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and the regulations (43 CFR § 10) that allow for its implementation address the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations (parties with standing) to Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony (cultural items). The statute requires Federal agencies and museums to provide information about Native American cultural items to parties with standing and, upon presentation of a valid claim, ensure the item(s) undergo disposition or repatriation.

Non-Federally Recognized Tribe: Organizations of people who claim to be historically, culturally, and/or genetically related to historic Native American Indian tribes but who are not officially recognized as an Indian Tribe by the United States federal government as defined in 25 USC § 4103(13)(B).

Repatriate: Return of possession of ancestral remains to lineal descendants, descendant peoples, or designated representatives that are determined to be culturally or geographically affiliated. This can include return of ancestral remains domestically or to a foreign country of origin.


The ancestral remains in the collection at NHMLAC are from all over the world and are housed within multiple departments within the Research and Collections division. Originally acquired through field collection, donation, and/or purchase, the remains are in various states of preservation including complete skeletons, mummified remains, individual whole and fragmented skeletal elements, entire fetuses, as well as remains incorporated into objects. They include both recent/historical and archaeological material. Ancestral remains cared for at the Museum include those that are subject to NAGPRA and/or CalNAGPRA as well as ancestral remains originating outside of the United States that are, therefore, not subject to NAGPRA and/or CalNAGPRA. The variation in both the state of preservation as well as the applicable laws necessitates an individualized approach to the care and curation of ancestral remains, while adhering to the general ancestral remains policy set forth within this document. The Museum also holds remains in trust from federal lands that are cared for consistent with the individual federal agency guidelines.


Among the requirements set forth under NAGPRA, there is a process outlined for museums to consult with lineal descendants, federally recognized tribes (identified as Indian Tribes in the law) and Native Hawaiian organizations for identification and repatriation of their ancestors’ remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. CalNAGPRA recognizes both federally and non-federally recognized tribes in the state of California and is meant to cover gaps in NAGPRA as it pertains to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony found within California or found to be affiliated with a California tribe(s).

NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA are fundamentally human rights legislation that protect the culture and biological remains of Native Americans and their ancestors. As an institution, we agree with the underlying premise of NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA, which recognizes and seeks to correct the injustice and harm caused by antiquated collecting practices that viewed ancestral remains primarily as objects of study. We, therefore, acknowledge and support the recognition and repatriation of ancestral remains to descendant peoples or lineal descendants, where possible and where requested. As such, we are applying the same ethical principles of NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA to all ancestral remains at the Museum, even if they are not subject to NAGPRA or CalNAGPRA (e.g., non-domestic).

For detailed information on how NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA are concurrently implemented at the Museum, please see the Museum’s Policy and Procedures for Consultation and Repatriation Under NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA.


All ancestral remains identified in any of the collections at the Museum shall be housed in secured, access-controlled areas that are dedicated to storage of ancestral remains. Ancestral remains will be stored together, no matter the collection in which the remains are accessioned (i.e. Anthropology, Vertebrate Paleontology, Mammalogy, etc.). Exceptions to this policy may include specialized storage needs such as cold storage, or remains that are fluid preserved, as well as remains from early Homo sapiens that do not fall under the term ancestral remains as defined for the purposes of this policy. Digital recordation of the ancestral remains in the care of the Museum will be entered in a dedicated, limited access catalog on the Museum’s collection software, currently EMu.


At this time, the Museum does not actively acquire ancestral remains nor have staff members who are specialists in the study of ancestral remains. We do not accept donations of ancestral remains unless specifically requested by lineal descendants, descendant peoples, or culturally affiliated communities. Exceptions to this policy may occur if ancestral remains are identified during active fieldwork at one of the Museum’s properties, which currently includes NHMLAC, La Brea Tar Pits and Museum (LBTP), and the William S. Hart Museum (Hart).  If ancestral remains are identified during off-site fieldwork conducted by Museum staff, proper inadvertent discovery procedures will be followed, including immediate notification of the appropriate coroner. Inadvertent discovery procedures in place by local, state, or federal agency landowners would then be followed.

If previously unidentified ancestral remains are identified in any of the collections at NHMLAC, LBTP, or the Hart the NAGPRA officer will recommend procedures for determining if the ancestral remains are subject to NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA. If they are subject to NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA, the procedures set forth in the NAGPRA policy will be followed. If they are not subject to NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA, they will be transferred to a dedicated ancestral remains storage area and subject to the terms listed in this policy.


Loans of ancestral remains will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will, in general, only be approved for the purposes of analysis to assist in NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA compliance and/or to provide more specific identification of provenience, ancestry, and cultural affiliation. Ancestral remains will be loaned off site only when necessary and with proper written consent. This may include analysis requested by the Museum staff for identification purposes under NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA. For ancestral remains that are under the control of a federal or state agency, the Museum will seek approval from the relevant agency.


Deaccessioning of ancestral remains under the control and possession of NHMLAC will occur during any repatriation process and will follow the guidelines set forth in the NHMLAC Collection Policy (Revised May 14, 2010).


Conservation work conducted on ancestral remains will be conducted only when necessary and will be undertaken by a qualified conservator with experience in ancestral remains preservation. When possible, this work should be performed in consultation with lineal descendants, descendant peoples, or culturally affiliated committees and their representatives.


Access to ancestral remains in the care of NHMLAC will remain restricted and be granted only for specific purposes. For ancestral remains that are under the control of a federal or state agency, approval from that agency is required.


Federal and state regulations require NHMLAC to publish inventories of human remains under the Museum’s control. This requires access to the remains and may include both non-invasive analysis and invasive analysis (see section XI). This access and analysis done in the process of NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA compliance is conducted at the discretion of the NAGPRA officer and under the supervision of the NAGPRA officer and/or the Archaeology Collection Manager. This access may include non-NHMLAC individuals with expertise in a needed specialization (i.e. Bioarchaeologist, Physical Anthropologist, Tribal representative, etc.).


The Museum recognizes that ancestral remains have the potential for unique scientific value. While this is an important consideration, ancestral remains have significant cultural and community value as well. This will be considered prior to approval of research access to any ancestral remains in the control of NHMLAC. In general, research access to any culturally affiliated ancestral remains will require the approval of the affiliated lineal descendant, Indian Tribe, or Native Hawaiian Organization. For ancestral remains not subject to NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA an attempt at descendant peoples consultation is preferred, if possible. The lack of a definite cultural affiliation will not be considered sufficient justification not to consult, nor to allow research that would not be allowed on Culturally Affiliated remains.

i. Internal Research

Access to ancestral remains for NHMLAC staff research is limited and available on an as- needed basis. This access may be for purposes of comparative analysis, conservation, consultation, or NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA identification. Access will be arranged through the NAGPRA officer.

ii. External Research

Any non-NHMLAC staff access to the ancestral remains must be requested in writing in the form of a research proposal and approved by the NAGPRA officer, in consultation with the Archaeology Collection Manager. The approval process will consider the nature of the research, appropriateness of the methods for the research, and any community consultation conducted and/or community approvals provided. Exemptions to this policy may occur for external individuals hired by NHMLAC staff to conduct research directed by NHMLAC staff.

iii. Analysis

Any analysis of ancestral remains will be conducted by qualified researchers. This includes both non-invasive and destructive methods. Any requests for analysis will be submitted as a proposal that will be reviewed by the NAGPRA officer and Archaeology Collection Manager. Analysis may occur only after a request for research access has been granted. In general, NHMLAC prefers non-invasive analysis and will grant permission for destructive analysis only if non-invasive techniques will not fulfill the research needs or if requested by a culturally affiliated group. For culturally affiliated ancestral remains that are subject to NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA, appropriate tribal approval is required for any analysis. For non-NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA ancestral remains, evidence of consultation with appropriate descendant peoples is required. This can be discussed with the NAGPRA officer and the Archaeology Collection Manager. For ancestral remains that are under the control of a federal or state agency, approval from that agency is required. Analysis on ancestral remains can be conducted only after the remains are properly documented. Any data collected during analysis including images, quantitative/qualitative data, etc. require approval prior to publication or release of data. The intended use for the data should be described in the research proposal submitted to NHMLAC.

a) Non-Invasive Analysis

Analysis that does not require destruction of any part of the ancestral remains is considered non-invasive. This type of analysis includes, but is not limited to scanning, photographing, measuring, and element identification. This type of analysis is preferred and should be considered before any destructive sampling. NHMLAC uses these types of analyses for documentation of the ancestral remains under Museum control.

b) Destructive Analysis

Any analysis that results in complete or partial destruction of any part of the ancestral remain is considered destructive. Typical destructive analyses include radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis, and isotopic analysis. Permission for destructive testing will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Researchers must explain why destructive analysis is necessary and the proposal review will consider numerous factors including the scientific potential of the research and the approval of affiliated or descendant peoples. Destructive analysis on ancestral remains that remain Culturally Unidentified under NAGPRA should contribute to cultural affiliation efforts. In general, NHMLAC uses destructive analysis techniques only when those analyses will likely lead to determinations under NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA.

iv. Remains in Previously Published Research

Requests for new research on ancestral remains that were previously subject to research and/or are the subject of previous publications are reviewed in the same manner as described in this document.


Access to ancestral remains for education purposes may include viewing the remains for university classes, including anatomy, physical anthropology, and others. These requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis and require a short description of the class and tasks that will be required of the students. In general, access to ancestral remains for education purposes will occur at NHMLAC under the supervision of the NAGPRA Officer and/or the Archaeology Collection Manager. Requests for educational loan of ancestral remains will only be considered after the relevant culturally affiliated groups and/or descendant peoples has given their approval, if possible.


The Museum recognizes that not all descendant peoples are able to accept repatriations or ancestral remains under NAGPRA/CalNAGPRA. There are also many cases where ancestral remains are held at the Museum until that time that a community is able to accept the remains. Upon request, the Museum will provide access to the remains for relevant descendant peoples and/or individuals for blessings, viewings, etc.


NHMLA uses reproductions for curation purposes, research, preservation needs, and/or to share with descendant peoples. These reproductions are held in a separate database that has limited access. Requests to see reproductions are handled in the same manner as all research requests for ancestral remains.


Any requests to photograph, scan, or cast ancestral remains are treated as non-invasive analysis and require a proposal and approval prior to any digitization. Plans for dissemination of the product need to be clearly stated and approved prior to work.


A major component of fulfilling NHMLAC's vision of inspiring wonder, discovery, and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds is to further public knowledge through exhibitions. In some instances, there may be compelling rationale for displays that incorporate ancestral remains as exhibition content. NHMLAC will use the following process and criteria to evaluate the appropriateness of such displays. These guidelines will apply to ancestral remains both in the Museum's collection as well as loaned exhibitions and displays exhibited at NHMLAC from external institutions.


Any proposed display that incorporates ancestral remains as exhibition content will be considered on a case-by-case basis by a review committee consisting of the NAGPRA Officer and other Museum staff and community members and in consultation with descendant peoples whenever possible. NHMLAC will only consider the display of ancestral remains if the following prerequisites are met:

  1. Clearly identified provenience of the ancestral remains in proposed display; and
  2. Identification of ancestry and cultural affiliation of the ancestral remains; and
  3. Compliance with any superseding laws, policies or regulations that would prevent their legal or ethical display in a Museum exhibition.

If the above prerequisites are met, the review committee will evaluate the request using the following criteria:

  1. The inclusion of ancestral remains provides a clear, material contribution to the cultural, scientific, and educational content of the display.
  2. The proposed exhibition treats display of ancestral remains with dignity and respect, in accordance with the exhibition policies and cultural practices of the descendent peoples.
  3. The proposed exhibition provides clear context and interpretation as to why the ancestral remains have been put on public display.
  4. Alternative approaches to displaying the same content without the inclusion of ancestral remains have been considered and deemed ineffective.

If the display is approved, NHMLAC will ensure appropriate design elements, interpretation, and messaging are integrated into the display to prepare and inform the audience. Physical layout and clear messaging will allow visitors who do not wish to see ancestral remains opportunities to avoid the display. Ancestral remains will be displayed with dignity and in a manner that prepares and allows visitors to view such displays with respect.


Proposed exhibition content that is sourced from ancestral remains, including casts, scans, photographs, or similar reproductions will also be evaluated for appropriateness on a case-by- case basis. To be considered for display, reproductions must still adhere to the prerequisites of provenience and identification detailed above. Proposals for the display of reproductions of ancestral remains will be individually evaluated as to the need for committee review. Reproductions on exhibition will be clearly labeled and have appropriate attribution information as required for display.


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