Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Projekte | Science Communication in 20th Century Europe | "Stay Away! But Come And See!" Scientific Nationalism in "Peripheral" Countries in Paleoanthropology And Archaeology

"Stay Away! But Come And See!" Scientific Nationalism in "Peripheral" Countries in Paleoanthropology And Archaeology

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Oliver Hochadel (Institució Milà i Fontanals, Barcelona, Spain)


The “cradle of mankind” stood in Africa. The East-African Rift Valley has become the El Dorado of Western paleoanthropologists since the late 1960s. Important sites for hominid fossils are to be found in (often remote regions of) Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa. These countries are considered to extremely poor, politically volatile and “underdeveloped”.

The Mediterranean is a crucial region for prehistoric and pre-Roman archaeology. Turkey for example hosts a large range of important archaeological sites. Since the late nineteenth century numerous European (“Western”) researchers have excavated in Troy, Ephesos, Pergamon etc. and continue to do so.

Although there are significant differences between these cases, the common denominator seems to be a stark asymmetry in funding and scientific expertise between the “host” country and the home countries of foreign researchers excavating. This asymmetry is often a cause of tensions between countries and researchers of different nationalities that are framed in terms of “scientific colonialism”. This trope is obviously directly connected with the frame of center-periphery.

Mutatis mutandis cases of “scientific colonialism” in archaeology and prehistory can be traced back at least to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Even presumably “central” countries such as France saw their prehistoric riches being taken out of their country. Particularly in the 1920s, museums from the USA with their well-filled coffers purchased large collections of stone tools and other objects for their collections.

White, Randall. "The historic and legal contexts of foreign acquisitions of paleolithic artifacts from the Périgord: 1900-1941 " Paper presented at the The role of American archaeologists in the study of the European Upper Paleolithic, Liège 2002.


This alleged asymmetry has to be questioned in each case. It is often used as a rhetorical device to self-fashion one’s nation as underdog. My particular case study is Spain. The cave-paintings of Altamira provide the locus classicus for “scientific colonialism” by devious French scholars.

Moro Abadia, Oscar. "Art caves as symbolic spaces: the case of Altamira." In Castrum Pragense. Sites of memory between scientific research and collective representations, edited by Jana Maríková-Kubková, Nathan Schlanger and Sonia Lévin, 69-78. Prague: Archeolosgicky ústav Akademie ved Ceske republiky, 2009.

For most of the twentieth century Spanish prehistorians and  archaeologists felt that they were at the margins of what was happening in their field. Despite a number of very promising sites it seemed to them that the “important things” happened in leading countries such as France, Great Britain and the US.

The self-perception of being “peripheral” is characterized by a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the “center”. As French archaeologist Nathan Schlanger pointed out to me, “there is a double move implied by ‘emergent’ scientific archaeological powers” in the early twentieth century. Countries such as Spain, Belgium and South Africa advertise themselves: “’come and see what we have’. They invite experts from abroad to pay attention, recognize and applaud. At the same time they signal: ‘keep off this is ours’ for us to do what we want, to give new names etc.”

This deep (post-colonial?) ambivalence continues to exist to the present day if we look at the cases mentioned at the beginning, paleoanthropology in Africa and archaeology in Turkey. Often these countries are still in need of support in terms of finance and expertise. Nowadays their main objective is to create a strong scientific community of their own.

Gibbons, Ann. "Africans begin to make their mark in human-origin research." Science 301 (2003): 1178–1179.



  1. The media seem to play a crucial role in this nationalization of research and the “defense” against the “exploitation” from abroad. Nationalist stirrings are far more difficult to detect in scientific publications. Therefore the popularization efforts of researchers, the strategies of museums and the discourse of mass media deserve special attention.
  2. In the popular sphere we often encounter attempts to “appropriate” hominid fossils and archaeological objects in order to construct national histories. What kind of “continuities” are these?
  3. I am sure that a similar line of argument could be pursued in different disciplines, the common denominator being “scientific valuables” in a peripheral country. Biodiversity / zoological research / rare plants and animals comes to mind.