There is a story about palaeoanthropology just about anywhere you might travel in the world. Our route to South Africa for the second fieldwork trip included what was to be a brief layover in Frankfurt, Germany, but which for me, became an unscheduled overnight stopover (more on this below).
Frankfurt is the home to the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, which is a prestigious research centre that includes in its diverse research programmes both fieldwork and laboratory research in palaeoanthropology. Senckenberg was once home to the distinguished German palaeoanthropologist G. H. R. von Koenigswald. During his career, which spanned from the 1930s to his death in 1982, von Koenigswald conducted research into human origins in many parts of the world. He recovered fossils now recognized as Homo erectus in Java, including the Modjokerto juvenile calvarium, and some of the very robust Sangiran material. In the 1950s, von Koenigswald visited South Africa to study the hominid fossils from sites such as Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, and later, he also published with the late South African palaeoanthropologist Phillip V. Tobias (…and thus, some links in this blog to our South African fieldwork project…).
Aside from his scientific pursuits, von Koenigswald lived through some incredible experiences. During World War II, he was taken prisoner (in Java) by the Japanese, and spent the war years in a POW camp. In fact, he was presumed dead by many, and as a result some of his fossil finds were initially described by Franz Weidenreich. After the war, the two great palaeoanthropologists resumed work together, and proposed that the taxa Pithecanthropus (named for the Javanese fossils) and Sinanthropus (named for the Chinese fossils) should be merged because of the similarities displayed by these two assemblages. Later, all such material was incorporated into Homo erectus, as it is now known.
Today, the Senckenberg Research Institute remains a world-renowned centre for palaeoanthropological research in Africa, Europe and Asia. Further information about their projects and researchers can be found here: http://www.senckenberg.de/root/index.php?page_id=898
Unfortunately, during my journey to South Africa, I was not able to visit the Senckenberg Institute or museum. Though we were only scheduled for about a 2 hour layover, I was not allowed to continue to South Africa by the customs officials at the Frankfurt Airport because I did not have any clean, blank pages in my passport! I was told that South Africa has a ‘very strict’ policy about this, and that I would have been turned me away on arrival in Johannesburg. So I spent the night in Frankfurt, and the next day visiting the US Embassy in order to obtain an insert of 10 clean, blank passport pages. (I just want to add that I did have five pages that appeared to have space for a customs stamp, but all had already been stamped at other ports-of-call).
The next day, everything was in order, and I was on my way to South Africa, a bit irritated over the delay, but still excited to get to the field. An expensive lesson in travel preparation, to be sure.
– KL Kuykendall
ps. Andy Reid made it all the way to Joburg as scheduled…!