Owning the (Deep) Past: Paleontological Knowledge and the Political Afterlives of Fossils

Who do fossils belong to? The question is far from new: in various guises, it has preoccupied paleoscientists, museum curators, and occasionally officials for many years, although ongoing debates about the decolonization of science and natural history collections have renewed its significance. For my childhood self, the answer would have been simple: fossils belong to anyone who cares to be enchanted and educated by them. Adult life is undoubtedly more complicated. Here, I begin to sketch an answer with a reminder of what is at stake. As remnants of past geological ages, plant and animal fossils often belong to a time when the Earth’s physical geography was markedly different from now, to say nothing of its geopolitical organization. That their ownership matters today clearly indicates how science and politics intersect: fossils provide a scientific lens through which to investigate the deep past, but they also help to weave that past into the politics of the present and the making of the future.

Imperialism, Labor, and the “Discovery” of the Deep Past

Violent imperialism taught us that fossils belonged to those who had the power to rule over lands, waters, and bodies. Nationalism helped connect such prehistoric remains to the organic body of a “nation,” even when that nation was far removed from the place they were discovered. A case in point is the Brachiosaurus brancai (now Giraffatitan), the world’s tallest mounted dinosaur, currently on display at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. Unearthed in German East Africa, as part of the famous Tendaguru expedition (1909–1913), the Brachiosaurus became a “national treasure” that was used to sustain visions of a German imperial nation and measure “German” paleontology against the scientific pursuits of other imperial powers. Its narrative of discovery and display propagated the notion that paleontology was an inherently “Western,” metropolitan pursuit—a form of intellectual labor that disavowed its material foundations and, with them, the many black bodies that had strenuously excavated fragile prehistoric bones.1

As in other branches of science, practices of knowledge making in paleontology did not always align with their surrounding discourses; this was even more likely when fossils were incorporated into projects of nation and/or empire-building. In colonial contexts, the making of scientific knowledge about the deep past was a transregional and transcultural exercise that began with the process of finding fossils itself. In fact, this continues to be the case in many postcolonial contexts as well, notwithstanding attempts to frame fossil discoveries and research in national terms. Global comparison—e.g., of fossil assemblages or ecological patterns—and international collaboration are essential to the making of paleontological knowledge. This is not to say that such interactions are not marked by structural inequalities and asymmetrical power relations.

In a remarkable essay on sub-Saharan archaeology, Nick Shepherd pertinently observes that white (male) archeologists were rarely the solitary “discoverers” of past vestiges they purported to be:

Indeed, there is a consummate irony here, that archaeology, a discipline whose methodologies involve maximum physical exertion, hours spent in the pit or at the sieve, so routinely should lose sight of its own conditions of material production. Like the clue in a murder-mystery, that which is nearest at hand is least remarked. The troubling narrative of archaeological production is shaded out by the spectacular narrative of discovery, the miraculous moment of the opening of the tomb, or the unearthing of the rare find.2

Shepherd’s work is an important attempt to document the nameless African men—African women are missing from this archive—whose participation in archeological excavations is only fleetingly captured in the extensive photographic collection bequeathed to us by archaeologist John Goodwin. The focus here is on manual labor, but local participation in processes of knowledge making about the (deep) past was by no means limited to digging up the earth. My research on the history of paleontology in colonial and postcolonial South Asia provides further evidence that this was so. It also complicates Shepherd’s story by demonstrating that the erasure of local participants was itself layered.

Two 1930s Expeditions in the Indian Subcontinent

The point is illustrated by two expeditions to the northern part of the Indian subcontinent organized in the 1930s under the auspices of Yale University: the Yale North India Expedition (1932–33) and the Yale-Cambridge India Expedition (1935). Initiated and led by geologist Helmut de Terra, they generated a rich visual, textual, and fossil archive, now stored primarily at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Yale Peabody Museum. On the first trip, financed by the Yale Corporation, de Terra was joined by his first wife Rhoda, biologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson, and budding paleontologist G. Edward Lewis. In various formations, the party traversed swathes of the Karakoram Range, the Salt Range, and the outer Himalayas to study the geological and biological history of those regions.3 Local South Asians participated in these expeditions in a variety of guises: as cooks and porters who ferried expedition equipment and fossil bones across difficult terrain, laborers who excavated fossils, fossil “seekers” who occasionally sold specimens to expedition members, topographers (Khan Sahib Afraz Gul Khan) who surveyed terrain and plotted invaluable maps, geological workers (Austin Manindra Nath Ghosh), “palaeontological collectors,” and “general assistants” (N.K.N. Aiyengar and D. Sen).

“(Helmut de Terra) excavating at Chinji, Salt Range” (1935). From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries

Like Aiyengar and Sen two years later, Khan and Ghosh joined the 1932–33 expedition through their association with the Geological Survey of India (hereafter GSI), a colonial institution established in 1851 to map the geology and natural resources of the Indian subcontinent.4 An anonymous donor found by Isaiah Bowman, Director of the American Geographical Society, covered the expenses for Khan’s surveying work when the Indian Government refused to do so.5 Born in 1889 into a Pathan (Pashtun) family, Khan had moved from active military service on India’s restless North-West Frontier—e.g., as a member of the Khyber Rifles, an auxiliary of the British Indian Army—into surveying after completing the Military Survey Course at the Roorkee College of Engineering. His remarkable expertise allowed him to participate in several scientific expeditions, such as those organized by Aurel Stein in Central Asia (1912–16 and 1930–31) and Philips Christiaan Visser in the Karakoram and Ladakh (1920s).6 In contrast to Khan, who was locally trained, Ghosh had obtained a degree in physical chemistry and electrochemistry from the University of London. He went on to conduct extensive geological work for the GSI, often in areas with potential for natural resources exploitation, eventually becoming head of the Oil and Natural Gas Directorate in the post-independence period.7

Afraz Gul Khan is, without doubt, the most visible South Asian member of the Yale North India Expedition. He is identified by name not only in photographs but also in de Terra’s correspondence and international press reports that sought to publicize the event. It is not hard to imagine why: his topographic expertise was essential to the expedition’s success. As Bowman candidly admitted in a letter to paleontologist John C. Merriam, President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, “Without the map the whole business is pretty much in the air.”8 Indeed, after the expedition ended, Bowman wrote Khan to congratulate him for “the substantial contribution to science … and … the very great effort that you made under extremely trying conditions to complete the fieldwork in so short a time and in so excellent a form.” Khan Sahib, as he was usually called, responded with an explanation of the topographic techniques he had employed, much to de Terra’s frustration, who had asked for them upon return to the US, as he prepared to publish the expedition’s scientific results (it is unclear whether Khan’s letter ever reached de Terra).9 Khan’s plane table sheets were not only scientifically relevant—e.g., to ascertain the connection between the Karakoram and the Trans-Himalayas—but, we can assume, also politically so, since he had mapped previously unchartered terrain to the west of the Tibetan border.

Afraz Gul Khan working on plane table sheets in the garden of the British Residency Garden at Leh, 16 June 1932. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries

The honorific “Khan Sahib” marked Afraz Gul Khan as a Muslim—”Khan Sahib” was a title usually conferred on Muslim subjects of the British Empire—an outstanding topographer and a loyal subject of the empire. Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Mason, with whom Khan had surveyed the Karakoram in the mid-1920s, noted Khan’s many accolades, among them the Back and Gill Awards of the Royal Geographical Society. But Mason was also clearly impressed with Khan’s allegiance to the British imperial project, which was all the more remarkable considering that many Pathan tribes had built a reputation by fighting against the British: “At the time of the Khalifat troubles after the War, the Khan Sahib loyally exerted himself in his district to dissuade his kinsfolk from their ill-judged course of action; and throughout his service he has earned the gratitude and admiration of every officer with whom he has served.”10

As it turned out, loyalty to the British was no guarantee of secure employment. De Terra, in his efforts to create international publicity around Khan’s work, also aimed to save his job with the GSI. By the early 1930s, the Indian government’s Retrenchment Committee to reduce postwar spending was toying with the idea of closing the GSI either temporarily or permanently. The British colonial government, it seems, had no interest in investing more funds into prospecting for mineral resources, let alone fossils. It was left to physicist C.V. Raman to make the case for the continued significance of the service. He chose to do it in a language the colonizers were likely to understand by comparing the dismal amounts invested in the GSI with the annual expenditures of some of the “leading surveys” in countries like the US and Canada.11 In the event, the GSI survived with fewer employees, but Khan lost his job. As Mason astutely put it, “the Khan Sahib has been ‘selected’ for retirement from the Survey of India, during the panicky regime which prevailed in 1931 and 1932. It was, perhaps, inevitable that retrenchment should bring with it numerous cases of extreme hardship; but surely there can be no case of greater forgetfulness in the annals of the Survey of India.”12

That Afraz Gul Khan has been forgotten is true. Yet, in the archives of the Yale North India Expedition he did enjoy some visibility, certainly compared to other locals involved in it. Photographs tend to portray him in the company of expedition members or even of his family; when alone, he is engaged in the work of preparing plane table sheets (Image 2). This active staging of his persona starkly contrasts with the other nameless individuals who seem to feature primarily as passive ethnographic subjects. In one image, a man crouches next to the partially exposed tusk and bones of a “mammoth,” a map, several tools, and two bottles neatly placed nearby. In another, de Terra looks at an excavated jaw, pick hammer in hand, while the man seated next to him appears to marvel more at the geologist than the exposed relic of the deep past (Image 1). In yet another photograph, taken at a rest house in Punjab, an expedition member is seen examining a fossil specimen surrounded by a group of “fossil seekers” (Image 3). Although this image was taken in 1935, we can assume that it was men like these who searched for and occasionally brought fossils to expedition members. They are the nameless “natives” recorded in Lewis’s diary and on field tickets (Image 4). Their erasure is particularly telling if we consider that the disdain for manual labor has a long pedigree in paleontology. Indeed, in eighteenth-century Europe, gentlemen naturalists sometimes identified the laborers—usually miners—who brought them fossils precisely because they wanted to distance themselves from the demeaning manual labor involved in finding them.13

Postcolonial Dilemmas

It is, therefore, quite remarkable that early postcolonial India also provides an example of a different, more equitable imagination of the world. It comes from a note penned by paleontologist Pamela L. Robinson and addressed to V. P. Sondhi, Director of the GSI. The latter forwarded it to P.C. Mahalanobis, then Director of the Indian Statistical Institute (hereafter, ISI) in Calcutta, who had invited Robinson to India in 1957 to help set up a Geological Studies Unit at the ISI. Robinson came to play an important role in the promotion of vertebrate paleontology in early postcolonial India, taking part in several joint expeditions between the GSI and the ISI in the late 1950s and early 1960s. On one such occasion, she argued that Indian laborers also deserved credit for their hard work:

If credit is given to the young Satsangi for discovering the first skeleton of Lystrosaurus, and one naturally wants to give all the credit one can to young men at the beginning of their career, then equal credit should also be given to our 13 year old coolie Dhoya who discovered the second skull & skeleton. Dhoya did far more work than he was actually paid to do, i.e. bag-carrying, by actively searching for fossils for the babus, and he found quite a number of things and quickly learned all the English names for our tools and equipment. I should have thought that this would have gone down well in a newspaper account, as boys like Dhoya are India’s hope for the future, they provide an assurance that skilled labour will be forthcoming for India’s future engineering projects & factories.14

Where does this leave us then? In a letter to Lewis sent during the Yale-Cambridge Expedition, de Terra complained, incredulously, that the Kashmir government no longer allowed him to excavate and collect fossils in that region “on account of my collecting the Elephas tusk in 1932!” and explained that he had “move several influential people” to overcome those restrictions. The anthropoid material collected in the Siwalik Hills in 1935 was eventually divided between the Yale Peabody Museum and the GSI, walking the tightrope between the need to “keep them happy in Calcutta” and the desire to retain the best specimens in the US.15 By this point, the GSI had clearly emerged as the custodian of India’s geological and fossil past. As for Dhoya, sadly, there is no trace of him in any of Robinson’s published work or other publications related to the events she described.

In the postcolonial period, fossils from the Indian subcontinent have continued to sustain institutions elsewhere, which testifies to their widespread circulation and importance as objects of education and scientific research. The collections at the Natural History Museum in London and the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven are among the most sizeable, but smaller ones exist in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the Palaeontological Collection of the University of Tübingen, the Manchester Museum, and the Tohoku University’s Museum of Natural History in northern Japan. These collections have different genealogies that await further documentation. Indeed, it is ironic that the specimens themselves, though difficult to transport, seemed to have traveled more easily than information about their complicated histories.

In India itself, fossils can be found on display in museums but also gathering dust in university departments and behind the closed doors of the GSI, an establishment that still struggles to shake off its colonial mentality and bureaucratic mantle. Indeed, fossils have failed to enter the official imagination in any impactful way in the post-independence period. In his foreword to the first issue of the Journal of the Palaeontological Society of India, PM Jawaharlal Nehru reminisced about being a student of geology at Cambridge and talked about his fascination with fossils.16 But it is telling that, during his premiership, fossils became subject to government policy primarily through their utilitarian applications: through the identification of deposits of natural resources, which were important to the planned economy model of the Nehruvian era, and, related to that, the measurement of geological time. As objects of education and basic research, fossils have remained relevant, above all, through a dwindling number of university courses and the institution-building efforts of dedicated individuals working within the system but also around and against it. These were people like Birbal Sahni and his brother Mulk Raj Sahni, who established an Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow (now the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences) and the Indian Palaeontological Society, respectively, as well as Mahalanobis and Robinson, who had the foresight to set up the Geological Studies Unit at the ISI. Today, a small cohort of paleoscientists and science enthusiasts continues this work, occasionally seeking to translate research results into the registers of journalism, film, or children’s books, thus making it available to a wider public.

To return to the question of fossil ownership: perhaps the answer should be that fossils belong to all of us. And this should mean that we are all responsible for their preservation; for helping build institutions to store, study, and exhibit them, especially where such institutions have long been lacking or underfunded; for helping to train future generations of paleoscientists, not least by making such collections accessible to everyone on equal terms; for writing different histories; and, finally, for restoring epistemic justice where such justice is long overdue. The beauty of fossils is that they can teach us something about the places they were found but also about how those places were connected to the larger world. That kind of learning is unlikely to happen unless we work together.

Amelia Bonea is a Lecturer in Global History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester. She is the author of The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India, c. 1830–1900 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), for which she was awarded the 2017 Eugenia M. Palmegiano Prize in the History of Journalism by the American Historical Association.


This essay is based on research conducted as part of a three-year project funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Project No. 423157196 ). I would like to thank the two scientific collaborators, Prof. em. Ashok Sahni and Dr. Advait Jukar; Arghya Manna, for collecting the material at the Indian Statistical Institute (Kolkata) during the Covid-19 pandemic; Daniel Brinkman and Vanessa Rhue (Yale Peabody Museum), Ingmar Werneburg and Anna Krahl (Palaeontological Collection of the University of Tübingen), Reishi Takashima and Jun Nemoto (Museum of Natural History, Tohoku University), and David Gelsthorpe (Manchester Museum) for help with documenting the histories of their collections; Georgia Brown and Zoï Doehrer for permission to use images in the Archives of the American Geographical Society; and my friend Arvind Das for always reading my writing. I alone am responsible for any errors.

  1. M. Tamborini and M. Vennen, “Disruptions and Changing Habits: The Case of the Tendaguru Expedition,” Museum History Journal 10, no. 2 (2017): 183–99; N. Shepherd, “‘When the Hand That Holds the Trowel Is Black’: Disciplinary Practices of Self-Representation and the Issue of ‘Native’ Labour in Archaeology,” Journal of Social Archaeology 3, no. 3 (2003): 334–52. ↩︎
  2. Shepherd, “‘When the Hand That Holds the Trowel Is Black’,” 349–50. ↩︎
  3. For a brief description of the 1932–33 expedition and the associated fossil collection, see A. M. Jukar and D. L. Brinkman, “An Introduction to the G. Edward Lewis 1932 Fossil Vertebrate Collection from British India and a Discussion of Its Historical and Scientific Significance,” Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History 62, no. 2 (October 2021): 81–96. ↩︎
  4. The GSI is currently a scientific agency under the Ministry of Mines of the Government of India. ↩︎
  5. H. de Terra to I. Bowman, 27 November 1931; Bowman to de Terra, 4 March 1933, Himalayas, Helmut de Terra, Expedition to the Himalaya and Karakorum, Correspondence, 1930–1933, AGSNY AC 1, Box 270, Folder 10, American Geographical Society of New York Records, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries (hereafter AGSNY; see id/12969/rec/3). Khan appears to have been on leave while undertaking this work. See “Notes: Khan Sahib Mian Afraz Gul Khan,” Himalayan Journal 6 (1934). ↩︎
  6. “Notes: Khan Sahib Mian Afraz Gul Khan.” ↩︎
  7. Deceased Fellow: Dr AMN Ghosh,” Indian National Science Academy, N60-0265. ↩︎
  8. Bowman to John C. Merriam, 30 November 1931, Himalayas, Helmut de Terra, Expedition to the Himalaya and Karakorum, Correspondence, 1930–1933, AGSNY AC 1, Box 270, Folder 10. ↩︎
  9. Bowman to Khan, 30 March 1933; Khan to Bowman, 6 May 1933, Himalayas, Helmut de Terra, Expedition to the Himalaya and Karakorum, Correspondence, 1930-1933, AGSNY AC 1, Box 270, Folder 10. De Terra to Bowman, 26 May 1933; De Terra to Bowman, 29 June 1933 (see id/23573/rec/2), Helmut de Terra, 1929–33, AGSNY AC 1, Box 183, Folder 44. ↩︎
  10. “Notes: Khan Sahib Mian Afraz Gul Khan.” ↩︎
  11. “Geological Survey of India,” Nature 128, no. 3239 (28 November 1931): 885–86. ↩︎
  12. “Notes: Khan Sahib Mian Afraz Gul Khan.” ↩︎
  13. L. Barnett, “Showing and Hiding: The Flickering Visibility of Earth Workers in the Archives of Earth Science,” History of Science 58, no. 3 (2020): 245–74. ↩︎
  14. Note by Robinson to V. P. Sondhi, 21 January 1958, Geological Studies Unit work with Pamela Robinson, 1956–1959, O RC7 F551 D32, P.C. Mahalanobis Memorial Museum and Archives, Kolkata. ↩︎
  15. De Terra to Lewis, 29 May 1935; William K. Gregory to M. R. Thorpe, 2 February 1937; Walter Granger to G. E. Lewis, 8 July 1938, all from YPM VPAR 5220, Vertebrate Paleontology Archives, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University. ↩︎
  16. Jawaharlal Nehru, “Foreword,” Journal of the Palaeontological Society of India 1 (1956). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Amelia Bonea, “Owning the (Deep) Past: Paleontological Knowledge and the Political Afterlives of Fossils,” History of Knowledge, July 25, 2023, https://historyofknowledge.net/2023/07/25/paleontological-knowledge/.