Tanzania’s Government Calls on Germans to Return Fossils

Ministers in the Government of Tanzania have called on their counterparts in Germany to repatriate dinosaur fossils so that the people of Tanzania can benefit from them and tourism revenues can be boosted.  The fossils collected by expeditions to what was then German East Africa (Tendaguru), include the Brachiosaur specimen on show at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.  This exhibit first went on display in 1937 and has been the centre piece of the museum’s dinosaur collection ever since.  The skeleton at 22 metres long and standing 13 metres tall, is one of the largest mounted dinosaur fossils on permanent exhibit anywhere in the world.  This particular Brachiosaurus is actually a composite of at least 5 individuals found at the Tendaguru site.  In total, the German expeditions between 1909 and 1912 brought back the remains of 34 Brachiosaurs, as well as fossils of other spectacular late Jurassic dinosaurs.

It was the German palaeontologist Werner Janensch who led the expeditions, an attempt to demonstrate German imperial ambitions in Africa and compete with the dinosaur discoveries of North America.  Now the Tanzanian Government wants its dinosaurs back.  The Governors of the Humboldt Museum are likely to put up a fight as the Brachiosaur and other exhibits have just been the subject of extensive restoration and re-modelling, part of a large investment programme being undertaken by the museum.  The Brachiosaur has been re-built using the latest scientific interpretations and data, this has resulted in the animal being put into a new anatomical posture, increasing the height of the mounted exhibit to 13 metres.

The Brachiosaur Exhibit at the Humboldt

Picture Credit: Speigel Online International

To read more about the re-building of this exhibit: Humboldt Brachiosaurus gets a Face Lift

Scientists have been debating whether or not the Tanzanian specimens are representatives of the Brachiosaurus genus.  Several palaeontologists have published papers highlighting significant anatomical differences between the African Brachiosaurs and those relatively few Brachiosaurs found in America.  It is possible that the more gracile Brachiosaur from Tanzania may be reclassified as anther genus – the name Giraffatitan “Giraffe Titan” has already been proposed.

To view a model of Brachiosaurus:  Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism within the Tanzanian Government, Mrs Shamsa Mwangunga, told her Parliament that she was holding talks and hoping to use the likes of UNESCO to put pressure on the Germans to release the fossils and other artefacts.  It is her intention to bring the Brachiosaurs back to Tanzania or at the very least to conclude an agreement whereby the Tanzanian Government benefited financially from all the tourists attracted to the German museum.

The Minister also commented that there were moves to start the process of bringing back early hominid skeletons that were found in Olduvai Gorge and Laetolia that are preserved in Kenya.  Most of the early hominid remains were discovered by Mary and Louis Leakey, a husband and wife team whose fossil finds proved that human evolution was centred on Africa.

A number of precedents have already been set as to the return of ancient items, relics, human remains and fossils to the lands where they were found.  It is likely that the debate will continue for some time, although regarded as national treasures and valuable sources of income, it is important to consider the preservation and safe keeping of these exceptionally rare items.  It would be a great loss to science if these precious fossils were damaged in transit back to Tanzania or indeed access to them for study was restricted as a result of an ongoing dispute.

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