Everybody has heard of the Elgin Marbles and the debate surrounding the right’s of countries to those artefacts. These marbles are famous the world over but this story is repeated many more times not just in archaeology, but palaeoanthropology also. Zambia was once a colony of the British Empire and it was during that time that a certain hominin skull E 686 was uncovered. This skull is now lies in the vaults of the South Kensington Museum, London. In Zambia, Deputy Minister Susan Kawandami (pictured) recently reported before the Zambian Parliament that years of talks failed to secure the return of E 686 to Zambia with the Natural History Museum, London prepared to make copies of the skull instead. Kawandami will now establish new discussions through UNESCO, while Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, Nkandu Luo will visit London to establish a dialogue with the Trustees of the Museum.
The fossilised skull of Rhodesian Man and other bones were discovered in 1921, 90 feet beneath the surface in the Broken Hill lead and zinc mine in what was then Northern Rhodesia. They were found by a Swiss supervisor, Tom Zwigelaar, and an unnamed African miner. Zwigelaar initially displayed the skull on a pole, to frighten his African miners, before it was spotted by a doctor who realised its potential significance.After the skull was discovered, the Rhodesia Broken Hill Development Company, which owned the mine, donated it to the Natural History Museum. It is one of the museum’s greatest treasures, representing invaluable evidence about human evolution.
If the Natural History Museum is ever to return the fossil, one thing is for sure, Zambia will have to convince the London Museum, that it is proactive in heritage (particularly palaeoanthropological) promotion and will ensure great care for the priceless skull. Which is currently not the case. The famed locality has no interpretative centre, no sign, no indication that two pivotal hominin bones – E 686 (Skull) and E 691 (tibia), were uncovered there. On the 17th of June 1921, A. S. Armstrong and A. W. Whittington uncovered those remains at Mutwe wa Nsofu, Mulungushi Road, Kabwe, Zambia. That same year, the fossils were given a new human species name – Homo rhodesiensis. This species has, thus far, only ever been found in Africa and it is a species that is seldom used by palaeoanthropologists. Most consider it a variation of Homo heidelbergensis. A key species that diverged into Homo sapiens (in Africa) and Homo neanderthalensis (in Europe). From about 1.5 million to 500,000 years ago, is a time that palaeoanthropologists have difficulty understanding due to the particularly patchy fossil record. So, what I have described is quite simplistic and many would argue over the exact details. The two fossils represent two adults males, that lived around 1 million years ago. Sadly, given they were found in the 1920’s, excavations in the field of human evolution were in their infancy and so, grossly inaccurate. The only way to date the site was through biostratigraphy. By looking at the animals that were found in the layers in which the fossils were found, later palaeoanthropologists compared those assemblages to strata at other sites which were radiometrically dated. The Kabwe stratigraphy was quite similar to Bed IV at the Oldupai Gorge which was dated to between 780,000 years to 1.3 million years. In April of 2020, radiometric dating of the skull itself produced a date of 299,000 years of age. Learn more here.
Zambia’s National Heritage and Conservation Commission (NHCC) is now in the process of rehabilitating the site. Chief executive officer of the commission, Collins Chipote warned that though the site was intact, it needs to be secured and developed. A Kabwe Mining museum was commissioned by Minster Nkandu Luo (pictured), which will be run by the Lead-Zinc Mining company Enviro-Processing Ltd. a subsidary of the giant Berkeley Mineral Resources PLC. More effort is required on the part of Zambia to show that they have the determination to celebrate their priceless heritage and right now, there seems to be no action, but plenty of talking.
Efforts to return the cranium have remained futile. Minister for Tourism Charles Banda visited London’s Natural History Museum to engage in talks over the issue. In July 2019 The Art Newspaper submitted a request to the National Archives for three pages relating to discussions on the return of Rhodesian Man, removed from a 1973 file, to be opened up under the Freedom of Information Act. It seems surprising that 47-year-old papers relating to the 1921 discovery of a 250,000-year-old skull should be quite so sensitive.
These three pages took officials nearly six months to review, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office finally refused to release the papers in February, concluding that it “would harm UK relations with Zambia”—and “would be detrimental to the operation of government and not in the UK’s interest”. Extensive Foreign and Commonwealth Office files provide an insight into what has gone on behind the scenes over the original claim. In 1972 the Zambian foreign ministry wrote to the UK high commission in Lusaka, arguing that the skull was “vital to the history of Zambia” and its return was requested. The UK’s main argument against the claim was that the museum was legally unable to deaccession. Under a 1963 law, the museum can only deaccession duplicates, items unfit for use or post-1850 printed material. It also said the skull is normally on display and accessible for serious scientific research.