Skulls not ours to keep
by Phillip Tobias Daily News, RSA. October 11, 2005
Fossil hominids should remain in their country of origin, or be restored to it in cases where they had been removed
I have described the Wits Anatomy Department as the 'home' of the Taung skull and other choice fossil hominid specimens, but this should not be seen to imply ownership of these specimens.
I consider that the skull and other fossils are, at the largest level, world treasure, and at a regional level, South African treasure that has been entrusted to Wits, and specifically to the Department of Anatomy, to serve as the fossils' custodian and curator.
This position has not always been the norm. For example, it seems that Raymond Dart considered that he owned the Taung skull.
"Not only Raymond Dart, but his University and the Witwatersrand council of Education were of the impression that he owned The Taung Skull"
His personal claim to ownership rested on his extraction of the skull from the breccia received in his laboratory (he had not himself excavated the specimen from the deposits of the Buxton Limeworks), and on his remarkable recognition of the unique and thitherto unprecedented complex of traits that pointed to the child's special place in hominid evolution.
Such visitors in 1925 as Robert Broom, Ales Hrdlicka, Alfred Sherwood Romer and the Prince of Wales (later and briefly King Edward VIII) enjoyed free access to the Taung skull, but it remained to all intents and purposes Dart's personal property.
Not only Dart but his university and the Witwatersrand Council of Education were of the impression that he owned the skull.
Perhaps, like Davidson Black (who had revealed Peking Man to the world), I should have travelled overseas with my specimens to evoke support for my beliefs, and I was presented with this opportunity.
The Witwatersrand Council of Education wrote to say they appreciated that, because of the lack of comparative material in the form of anthropoid skulls of corresponding age, it would be impossible for me to perform a satisfactory monographic study of the Taungs [sic] skull in South Africa.
The council said they were willing to defray the expenses of my going to England for this study provided I donated the skull to the university.
After careful thought, I decided I could not be bound by such a conditional undertaking, nor was I prepared to absent myself for so long a time from the young department [of anatomy] and my newly established home.
With the Council of Education's offer having been refused by Dart, the Taung skull remained to all intents and purposes his personal property.
This position persisted from 1925, the year of the announcement of the discovery, to the end of 1958, when Dart relinquished the chair of anatomy to me.
At that stage Dart told me that he was handing the custody of the Taung skull over to me; I was to be the guardian and keeper of the skull, an arrangement that has remained. Dart's claim of ownership was not unique in those far-off days.
When the Florisbad cranium was discovered by Professor Thomas F. Dreyer near Bloemfontein in the Free State Province in 1932, the two assistants who helped him in the excavation, A.J.D.
Meiring and A.C. ('Hoffie') Hoffman, were not allowed to come anywhere near the Florisbad cranium. Dreyer's possessiveness and 'ownership' of the cranium was evident from that point.
Some 22 years later, when the Annual Conference of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science met at the National Museum in Bloemfontein, Dreyer, aged and ill, came from his home to the Museum with the Florisbad cranium to show the participants the important skull.
Another example of claimed ownership was of the Italian fossils of San Felice Circeo (Monte Circeo) and Saccopastore. These splendid Neandertal skulls reposed in the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Rome under its director, Professor Sergio Sergi (1878-1972).
Sergi told me that during the German occupation of Italy in the Second World War, he became aware that German officers were seeking fossil treasures for Hitler and that they wished to obtain these skulls. In the period between July 1943 and June 1944, a German officer called on Sergio Sergi and asked to see these skulls, probably with the aim of sending them to Germany.
Sergi told the officer that the specimens were at that time in Messina, Sicily, where his colleague Landogna was making some special studies on the fossils - or so said Sergi. In fact, Sergi had instructed his technician, Maria Ricca, to take the skulls secretly in an unexceptional shopping basket to a well-known church Santa Maria della Pieta' in Trastevere, Rome, after a clandestine agreement with the clergy of that parish. The place of safe-keeping was below the altar of the church.
There the skulls reposed, probably until the allied armies liberated Rome in June 1944. At the end of the war, Saccopastore and San Felice Circeo were safely recovered and restored to the University of Rome.
When Sergi retired from the directorship of the Institute of Anthropology, Roman colleagues told me that he was not enamoured of his successor, Venerando Correnti.
Consequently, Sergi removed the Saccopastore and San Felice Circeo skulls to his private apartment in the city. In order to see the skulls, I had to seek an invitation to visit Sergi's apartment. Into the bedroom we went, where they were kept in hat-boxes under the bed with one on top of the wardrobe.
Those fossil skulls were most assuredly Sergi's personal property (he believed); after all, had he not saved them from looting by the German officers - and, for that matter, from the 'clutches' of Correnti?
A fourth example of a palaeo-anthropologist who firmly believed he owned the fossils for which he was responsible was Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald, known to his family and friends simply as 'Ralph'.
>From 1931-41 he had been responsible for discovering and recovering a number of fossils of 'Java Man' along the Solo River, at the boundary between the middle and eastern thirds of Java in the then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). These were some of the most important discoveries of Homo erectus specimens ever made.
In December 1941, Japan entered the Second World War. Within days, the famous original fossils of 'Peking Man' had disappeared, while work in Java had come to a standstill.
A last-minute American offer to move the original Javanese hominids to the United States was not accepted; in any event, Koenigswald himself apparently did not learn of the offer until after the war. Instead he took extraordinary measures to ensure that the fossils were secreted and protected.
Shortly before the Japanese forces occupied Java, plaster casts were substituted for some of the original hominid fossils. When the Japanese overran Java, Koenigswald was taken captive and spent many months in a prisoner-of-war camp.
However, his wife, Luitgarde von Koenigswald, saved the new Javanese fossil finds. She was helped by two Swiss geologists from the Shell Company, Doctors Mohler and Rothpletz, and a Swedish journalist, Rulf Blomberg.
The specimen that Ralph regarded as his most important discovery, namely the upper jaw of Sangiran IV with its large palate and diastema (or space between the upper canine and first premolar), Mrs Von Koenigswald kept in her pocket throughout the Japanese occupation. Other specimens were concealed by Ralph's friends, the villagers and the 'neutrals'.
Because of Koenigswald's foresight, all of the Javanese hominid fossils survived the war. At the end of hostilities, a weakened Koenigswald was released and he was re-united with his family and all of 'his specimens', save for one of the Solo skulls from Ngandong.
This was later found in the Imperial Household Museum of the Japanese Emperor and repatriated to its fellows in Koenigswald's hands.
When the Rockefeller Foundation and the Viking Fund arranged to bring the Koenigswalds' live and fossil families to America, Ralph had no compunction whatever about packing the Javanese fossils and carrying them to the USA with him.
In Germany, the Werner-Reimers Foundation provided the facilities he needed at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum of Frankfurt.
Once again, Ralph packed his bags, his fossils and his personal library, and without apparently any consultation with the Netherlands authorities, carried them off to Frankfurt.
He still considered them his personal property and, until recently, I knew of only one fossil cranium that he had returned (in 1978) to Indo-nesia's most eminent palaeo-anthropologist, Teuku Jacob.
Today it is universally acknowledged that all fossil hominid specimens that are found belong to, and belong in, the country in which they are found.
The array of fossils from northern Kenya, which emanated from the east and west of Lake Turkana, and those from the area of the Tugen Hills just to the south, are the property, the national heritage, of Kenya.
The Olduvai, Laetoli and Peninj fossils from northern Tanzania are unequivocally Tanzanian treasures. The fossil hominids of Bahr-el-Ghazal and Toros-Menalla in the Chad Republic belong to the Chad.
I staunchly support the idea that fossil hominids should remain in their country of origin, or be restored to it in cases where they had been removed.
Where there is doubt about whether the facilities in the cradle-land are adequater, the country of 'adoption', perhaps helped by Unesco, which already has such programmes under way in several parts of the world should offer to improve or provide appropriate facilities for the permanent housing of the fossils to be returned.
This is an extract from: Into the Past: A Memoir by Phillip Tobias (Pan Macmillan/Wits Press, R159)