Anthropology: Tiptoe Through the Turmoil

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1996

Anthropology: Tiptoe Through the Turmoil

Is scientific colonialism alive and well in Tanzania?
By Kiki Yablon

About 3.6 million years ago, three human-like creatures stood up and walked across the muddied volcanic ash near what is now Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. The smallest walked side by side with the largest--they might have held hands.

Alas, if the creatures, perhaps our earliest ancestors this side of apes, had only known that a few million years later they'd be an ugly source of contention in archaeology circles and beyond, they just might have covered their tracks.

The trouble all started in 1978, after Mary Leakey, the cigar-smoking, Scotch-sipping widow of famed archaeologist Louis Leakey, and her team found the footprints under about two feet of dirt and volcanic ash. The prints seemed almost perfectly preserved--an archaeological marvel that promised to be a vital key to fleshing out the "missing link" between man and ape. The find also set off a bitter dispute between Leakey, who believed that the prints were made by a previously unknown species of hominid, and upstart American Donald Johanson, who believed that they belonged to a known, more primitive creature. Though that conflict has never been resolved, the prints were eventually covered up with a sheet of plastic and sand.

All was relatively quiet until a cluster of rogue acacias began shooting their roots dangerously close to the buried prints. Last year, the Tanzanian government enlisted the California-based Getty Conservation Institute, whose list of undertakings has included Egypt's Great Sphinx, Belize's Xunantunich, and Buddhist grottoes along China's Silk Road, to deal with the bothersome flora. The institute took care of the roots with herbicide and then, to the dismay of Tanzanian scientists, stayed on to do additional work. As it turned out, Getty had made a deal with the Tanzanian government to spend two years re-excavating, studying, stabilizing, and then reburying the entire 25-yard trackway. The project was good news for the prints but meant that only Getty-approved scientists would be allowed to study them--which led to charges of "intellectual colonialism" from around the world.

"It's well known that there's high-level corruption in the government," says Charles Musiba, a former employee of Tanzania's antiquities unit and a graduate student in paleontology at the University of Chicago. "The thinking is that Getty has used that corruption to get what it wants."

Kay Sanger, a Getty spokesperson, denies any back room deal-making. She adds that burying the prints was the best way to preserve them for future generations. "There's not the money to build a shelter and hire a guard," she says.

That, says Russell Tuttle, a University of Chicago professor who originally studied the prints with Leakey and yet was left off the Getty team, is unfortunate for everybody but Getty. "What's going to happen is that Getty will take all kinds of great video footage and data and then they'll go back to California and have their little soirees and show the video and make CD-ROMs," he says. "And then donors will write them checks--and none of the money will go back to the resource."

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