Returning Zinj: curating human origins in twentieth-century Tanzania

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The discovery in 1959 of the fossil fragments that would become the Zinjanthropus boisei skull propelled Olduvai Gorge, the Leakey family, and the search for human origins into the glare of the world's media. This triumvirate has remained in the public eye ever since, placing the discovery of “Zinj” at the very heart of our understanding of the archaeologists' quest to uncover the deep history of human kind. This article traces the biography of the Zinjanthropus boisei skull from its discovery in 1959 to its incarnation in current public discourse in eastern Africa, half a century on. This requires us firstly to resituate the scientific endeavour that brought Zinj to us within its historical context, and then to examine the combination of materiality and iconographic reproduction that has shaped our view of the skull and its story. The experience of the National Museum of Tanzania, in terms of its own wider institutional history and its specific curatorship of Zinj allows historians to critically assess the importance of palaeoanthropology in East Africa in its overlapping local, regional and transnational spheres.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)153 - 173
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Eastern African Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Mar 2009


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