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Fossils in the Fayum: biogeography and colonial palaeontology in the 1900s

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At the turn of the 20th century, European and American palaeontologists expanded their research into colonial regions. Partly this took advantage of imperial expansion, which formed a new context for natural history collecting, the increased influence of European and American museums, and the development of geological surveys. It was also connected with new scientific research agendas, with debates and researches on biogeography becoming a major scientific concern. This paper will examine one of the most high-profile instances where these areas intersected: the upsurge of palaeontological excavation in the Fayum in Egypt in the years around 1900. Expeditions from a range of countries and institutions, including the British Museum of Natural History in London, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the natural history of museums of Munich and Stuttgart, conducted excavations in the region, seeking to acquire Egyptian fossils and present them to public audiences in their home countries. This paper will examine how these expeditions interacted with one another, and operated through local intermediaries, geological institutions and excavators, as a case-study of the complex interrelations within colonial science in this period. Moreover, it will examine how the fossils collected during these projects were understood to revise dominant interpretations of evolutionary and biogeographic history. They seemed to show the ancestors of elephants, manatees, hyraxes and whales, as well as a range of stranger herbivorous and carnivorous mammals, and therefore filled important gaps in knowledge of life’s history. In this way, this international colonial project drew off a sense of mystery and purpose, marking out Africa as a whole as an important centre of evolutionary development.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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