Race and National Bias in East African Palaeoanthropology

A half century of struggle has resulted in more than a little change, which we hope is still ongoing.

I was moderately disturbed to see, while watching a brand new documentary on human evolution, credit for the “discovery” of a particular fossil given to a man who had not in fact discovered the fossil. What was interesting about this mis-attribution is that a DIFFERENT guy who is also not the discoverer usually gets the credit. So, my first thought was “What were these two arguing about that led to this outcome, where the more powerful person got the credit?” and my second thought was “Unlikely scenario, that. More likely we are just getting farther and farther away from correct attribution because the original discoverer is dead. And was never an academic. And was a Black African.”

Then I got an email from DNL asking for a contribution to the upcoming Diversity in Science Carnival and I thought it might be a good idea to write about the topic of the sometimes clumsy yet ongoing rise of diversity in traditionally white-male-colonialist Palaeoanthropology of East Africa.

I want to be clear what is meant when we speak about “diversity” in this context. It is not helpful to pretend that by “diversity” we mean anything other than “non-whiteness of skin” among the participants in the enterprise and something closer than usual to a roughly 3:1 ratio of X to Y chromosomes. In other words, “diversity” in its simplest form in this context means significant movement away from the dominance of foreign white males doing all of the research and getting all the glory while those who would be described differently do all the hard work under the burning tropical sun.

That is not entirely sufficient for a number of reasons. Not all Africans are “white” (so I’ll refer here to “Black Africans” now and then). Sexual orientation is a factor. Politics matters too: Not all white males are created equal, when it comes to sitting on grant committees.

I can easily make two lists of a half dozen Africanist Palaeoanthropologists working in East and southern Africa. Both lists are all white, both lists are all male. One list consists of people with racist tendencies, people with track records of valid sexual harassment cases against them, who are more or less homophobic, and who disdain to various degrees the role of the Black African in research, etc. The other list has people with careers that have been negatively affected because they have opposed racist regimes, who have supported higher education for non-whites in Africa within their own field, who have repeatedly co-authored with non-male and non-white colleagues and regularly taken secondary or tertiary authorship. The second list is gay into the two digit percentage level and now that I think about it there is something other than a 50:50 ratio of X to Y chromosomes for reasons that I shall not go into.

The first thing you might have to do to increase diversity in African Palaeoanthropology is to make sure that it is the second list, not the first list (and yes, it is going to have to be one of these lists initially) who sit on grant committees and in other positions responsible for the channeling of resources to research and education. I call this “hidden diversity” because it is a little like hidden genetic variation. “Hidden diversity” is better than “hidden racism and sexism.” It is not the end goal, of course.

It is interesting to consider the contrasting policies that have been put into place in various African countries regarding diversity and academics. I can make a few comments about this in reference specifically to archaeology and palaeoanthropology but this may parallel (but in some cases fall behind, I think) other academic areas.

Kenya and Tanzania have long been the foci of much of this work partly because Olduvai Gorge is in Tanzania but was studied intensively since the 1950s by scientists from the Nairobi National Museum (which is in Kenya). Other important sites are found in both countries. Here, the dominant power structure was centered (over many decades) on the Nairobi National Museum, and thus on the Leakey family. The Leakeys are mostly Kenyans, born in Kenya, involved in Kenyan government and politics, and of course, the Museum’s work (Mary was not a born Kenyan). So, part of the diversity issue is addressed here by the simple fact that the archaeology is not being done by colonial outsiders, but rather, by potentially colonialistic but not so much so insiders. In other words, despite their whiteness, I would assert that the Leakeys contained “hidden diversity” with respect to skin color. The fact that the most prominent Leakeys are males (Louis and Richard) but the ones that have done the most work and the most important work in palaeoanthro are females (Mary and Maeve) is typical (women are smarter than men but the men tend to take the credit). Much of this work was done with the idea that Black Africans would play an eventual role, but that role would often be secondary until the overall education system improved, and so on and so forth.

From this legacy, though, emerged the LSB Leakey Foundation, which has funded the graduate education of and research by many native born Africans who also happen to be (mostly) black. If you survey the academic landscape today for Black Africans working in Paleoanthropology anywhere from the Red Sea to the Limpopo, you’ll find most, perhaps all, have received funding at some crucial point in their careers from the Leakey foundation, often through grants specifically designed to fund African of “previously disadvantaged groups” in this area of higher ed.

They are almost all guys, of course.

Ethiopia has had a slightly different history. During the 1970s, a great deal of very fun and important research was being done in Ethiopia by Kenyan, American, British, French and other nationals. They touted the interdisciplinary nature of their work, and the international cooperation and all that. I have no idea how relations were going between Black Africans and these nearly 100% non-Black non-African researchers, or if there were plans to develop educational opportunities, etc. But, apparently, the post-Revolution Ethiopian government did have some strong ideas as to what sorts of changes should happen.

As I understand it from various sources, via individuals involved at the time, the feeling was essentially as follows (but this does not reflect official government statements which may or may not have been made then): These fossils are not going anywhere if we leave them alone, but career opportunities for young Ethiopians are being taken up by outsiders at an alarming rate. So, let’s spend a decade or so advancing the level of education among Ethiopians, getting them trained up and experienced, then run our own palaeoanthropology program.

Which is exactly what they did, or at least attempted to do. It is worth noting that the LSB Leakey Foundation helped fund some of that. Also, academic departments from around the world got involved in a way that was, to my eye, a bit nefarious but probably only way it could have happened. Departments would “collect” Ethiopian students. The would also collect Tanzanians, as this sort of thing (internal training and strengthening of the academic and research programs) was happening in a similar way there as well. And for good measure they would collect Malawians, Kenyans, and others, as appropriate. When I say “collect” I mean admit to a graduate program regardless of admissibility (which is not unreasonable given the nature of the interface between education, training, and politics internationally); Get them funded by matching Leakey Foundation or other grants, link them up to grad students to help them through their studies, and then hope that eventually these individuals would become government officials in the countries you wanted to work and would sign off on permits to you.

(Am I being too cynical here?)

In truth, this system ended up working fairly well for some of its objectives. For one thing, college professors and low level deans are lousy at social engineering. The whole idea that you could get graduate students to still love you after seven to ten years of research and training (which is how long a field-based anthro degree takes to get for anyone) is really kind of funny when you think about it. These students were not going to grow up to be sycophants. Throwing most of the responsibility of tutorial to the already extant in-country graduate students simply meant more beer. (Never mind the details of how tutorial turns into beer. If you don’t know, that simply means you’ve never been a PhD student. It is a pretty normal process, converting things into beer, in graduate school.)

About a dozen institutions around the world did this to some degree or another, so about 40 or so Black Africans from Ethiopia+, Tanzania, Kenya and a handful of other locations got trained up this way. Most succeeded in palaeoanthro or related fields, while a few left the field entirely and did other things, but my impression is that the success rate for these students was higher than average. None became pawns that I know of, but most developed excellent relationships with each other, their host-institution based grad students as they moved on to careers, and with various senior faculty, in some cases, even the ones that were their advisors.

The National Governments of Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia insisted on change and made rules, sometimes annoying and arbitrary but often reasonable and pragmatic, to make changes happen. American, British, French and other institutions of higher learning, and their faculty, put forth a combination of efforts, some in my view rather exploitative, some well meant and altruistic, which in combination kept these students alive during graduate school. In the end, the international research projects are not as white and colonial as they once were, the press conferences are not as white and colonial as they once were, and young boys growing up in Addis or Nairobi can include becoming a palaeoanthropologist in the same position on their list of thing to do when they grow up as, say, English Literature Professor or Assistant Head of a government ministry.

The girls? Not so much. There are many chapters of this story still to be written, and the rise of women as equals in palaeoanthropology is an interesting story, but not one best assessed from the East African perspective.

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7 thoughts on “Race and National Bias in East African Palaeoanthropology

  1. My wife and I went to Olduvai a few years ago, which if I recall what our guide told us, is really Oldupai in Swahili. Anyway, he was Masai, trained in Dar Es Salaam, and gave us a reasonably good interpretation of what we were looking at. He lived about six miles away from the Olduvai museum in a small cinderblock box built by the gov’t. He told us he liked his accommodations since he could walk to work.

    I’m happy to hear the Leakeys are active in working with Black Africans in the field. The “equalization of the sexes” as some Tanzanian acquaintances called it, is going to take much time.

  2. Sweet post.
    When I watched old movies about archeology or exploration in Africa, the character plot was always the same: Great White male leader with individual personality, droves of blacks as labor. There would be a scene where the scientist discovers something or explains the significance of the native artifact/event to what seemed to be the natives. That always struck me as odd and not right. Even as a child I thought, “You mean to tell me that there isn’t a single expert from the local area? The expert ALWAYS has to come from Europe or America?”
    Then later, via documentaries and science-related news coverage, you’d see similar scenes. But as a youth I did not know/comprehend the historical/institutional barriers of native peoples gaining the expertise needed to be a scientific authority.
    Thanks for shining light on this historical issue and the role that the Leakeys played in helping to level the playing field. A great example of how priviledge can be shared to make things fair.
    You want this post contributed to the Carnival,yes?

  3. The one who got funding for the research is the one who [almost] always takes most of the credit. Works the same way in every scientific field today. Yes, the money for digs “always” come from Europe or America?

  4. This is a very interesting perspective of the History of Anthropology and Anthropologists particularly in East Africa .I think a text book on the subject and especially on “How not to do Field Anthropology” would best a best seller

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