Written by Matthew Porter, Curatorial Assistant, Natural History Museum London
Excavations carried out by the Natural History Museum London at the site of Tendaguru, one of the world’s most important dinosaur sites, relied on the knowledge and endeavours of unnamed indigenous Africans. It was between 1924 and 1931, that 589 crates of specimens, representing tens of thousands of kilograms of fossils from 55 quarries, were shipped to London from the United Republic of Tanzania, in East Africa. The collection is significant due to the age of the Tendaguru Formation, which has been correlated with the much more widely studied Morrison Formation in the United States of America. Thus, the fauna from this site can give us greater insight into the diversity, evolution, biogeography, and palaeobiology of taxa living during the Jurassic, from a relatively less well-known area of the world making it one of the most important Mesozoic fossil sites to date. The contribution to the discovery, excavation and preparation of specimens such as these by indigenous Africans has gone unrecognised, a common omission within natural history collections (Das and Lowe 2018).
In 1924, the Natural History Museum in London, then the British Museum (Natural History) (BMNH) launched the British Museum East Africa Expedition. Led by William Cutler, it was to explore the site of Tendaguru which was previously held by Germany but vacated in 1922 owing to the Treaty of Versailles. There, the British expedition faced many trials: tropical heat, heavy rains, brush fires, snakes, disease-carrying insects, dysentery, malaria, leopards and harsh living conditions. When Cutler’s assistant who spoke Swahili left in the middle of the field season, this led to numerous confrontations between Cutler and his workers, stemming from cultural and linguistic differences. Maier (2003) observed that Cutler “himself speculated that his instructions were misunderstood due to his poor command of local languages”. Cutler left Tendaguru on January 31st 1925.
Cutler returned to Tendaguru on May 29th 1925, though once again he faced disagreements with his workers. Cutler (1925b) mentions that despite these issues “on the 25th July… caravan of 108 porters slung 26 crates over poles and set off along the improved trail to the coast”. Throughout August, the punishing regime to which Cutler subjected himself left him exhausted and he succumbed to malaria on August 30th. The BMNH looked urgently for a replacement for Cutler, and that replacement came in the form of Migeod who, despite his appointment, had no previous palaeontological experience. Even so, he would supervise 40 locals who worked throughout the rainy season, staying from November 1925 to December 1926. Perhaps an unacknowledged testament to the skills and experience of the indigenous workers. Estimation of Migeod’s team’s efforts, based on his notes, indicates they excavated 17,450 kilograms of bones, as he said “this collection represented 431 loads carried to Lindi by 530 bearers” (Migeod 1927a). Furthermore Migeod (1927b) “calculated that he was sending the remains of about 30 dinosaurs”.
In the subsequent years, between 1927 and 1928, the excavations would be supervised by two elephant hunters; Parlett and Kershaw, who were later replaced by Dr. Parkinson. In April 1929, Migeod eventually returned, supported only by the money pledged by the Tanzanian government. Migeod engaged 40 men and worked the immediate area of Tendaguru until mid-November. As with previous years, this field season was fraught with problems and a principal drawback was worker permanency. “Few men remained more than three months, by which time, at the local rate of 18s. per month, the men reckon they have earned enough to pay their taxes” (Migeod 1930). The Tanzanian authorities would later grant £1000 to sustain work for 1930-1931, just before expenditure was slashed due to the Great Depression, which began October 29th 1929. The final field season started in April 1930, and Migeod was joined by Cambridge Zoologist Francis Rex Parrington. One of the most significant finds made by the endeavour in its final year was a partial skeleton of a giant sauropod at the site of M23. This was the largest association of bones found throughout the expedition: “the specimen from the nose to the tip of the tail may well have been over 70 feet in length” (Migeod 1931). The specimen was originally attributed to Brachiosaurus brancai, but was later given a new genus Giraffatitan brancai, known from only five partial skeletons around the world.
But how could the various, often inexperienced, expedition leaders have managed to collect thousands of kilograms of fossils? The answer as seen in the image below is with an extensive collecting team of local people who acted as excavators, porters and indeed navigators, directing the likes of Cutler and Migeod to sites of fossil exposures. The collecting team was divided up into numerous sub teams that worked different quarries simultaneously between 1924-1931. The scale of the operation, and the amount of material collected, would not have been possible if not for the hard work and skills of the indigenous Africans. Whilst correspondences from the expedition leaders and Maier’s own archival research has highlighted that each person had differing opinions on the capabilities of the local Tanzanians, what is clear is that despite the numerous difficulties faced by the expedition, many indigenous workers became skilled at osteological identification and as preparators. It is for these reasons that these local people, and the Tanzanian government who pledged funds to keep the field seasons going in its latter stages, should be duly acknowledged, and their efforts highlighted along with those of the more widely recognised Cutler, Migeod, Parkinson and Parrington.
Bussert, R., Heinrich, W.-D., and Aberhan, M.. 2009. The Tendaguru Formation (Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous, southern Tanzania): definition, palaeoenvironments, and sequence stratigraphy, Foss. Rec.. 12, 141–174. Available here.
Das, S. and Lowe, M. 2018. Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections. 6, 4-14.
Maier. 2003. African Dinosaur Unearthed, The Tendaguru Expeditions. p137.
Cutler Field Notes: Tendaguru 1925b: Catalogue of work done, July 3, 1925, DF 5000/12.
Migeod 1927a. The Dinosaurs of Tendaguru. Journal of the African Society. 26, p339.
F.W. H. Migeod 1927b. British Museum East Africa Expedition: Progress in the year of 1926. Natural History Magazine 1, no.2, p35.
Migeod .1930. Report on the British Museum East Africa Expedition. Season 1929. Natural History Magazine, p198.
Migeod 1931. British Museum East Africa Expedition. Account of work done in 1930. Natural History Magazine, p90.
Many thanks to the archivists at the Natural History Museum, especially Emma Harrold for providing access to the images used.