PARIS (AP).- French lawmakers decided Tuesday to return 16 tattooed and mummified Maori heads to New Zealand, ending years of debate on what to do with the human remains acquired long ago by French museums seeking exotic curiosities.
For years New Zealand has sought the return of Maori heads kept in collections abroad, many of which were obtained by Westerners in exchange for weapons and other goods.
Dozens of museums worldwide, though not all, have agreed to return them. Maori, the island nation's indigenous people, believe their ancestors' remains should be respected in their home area without being disturbed.
France's National Assembly voted 437-8 on Tuesday to give back the 16 heads counted in France, including seven kept in storage at Paris' Quai Branly museum for the primitive arts. The Senate has already OKed the move.
It was unclear when the heads might be sent home, but authorities can now begin negotiating the move.
The heads' repatriation is " matter of great significance for Maori," New Zealand's culture and Maori affairs minister Pita Sharples said. "Maori believe that, through their ancestors' return to their original homeland, their dignity is restored, and they can be put to rest in peace among their families."
Some in France had worried the case could set a precedent for similar action against other museums a big concern given the Louvre's many Egyptian mummies and lawmakers had debated New Zealand's request since 2007 when the Normandy city of Rouen offered to return its Maori head.
Lawmaker Catherine Morin-Desailly, who authored the bill to return the heads, downplayed that fear and said this was a special case because some Maoris were killed to satisfy collectors' demands.
Some Maori heads, with intricate tattoos, were traditionally kept as trophies from tribal warfare. But once Westerners began offering prized goods in exchange for them, men were in danger of being killed simply for their tattoos, French museum officials have said.
Tuesday's vote "confirms France's moral responsibility as a country of human rights," Morin-Desailly told Associated Press Television News. "There are some things which are above art and which should remain sacred."
Associated Press Writer Christina Okello contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.