Fossil Discoveries & Contingent Cartography

Leaflet from Field Museum's Hall of the Stone Age of the Old World, Prehistoric Man, 1933.

Leaflet from Field Museum's Hall of the Stone Age of the Old World, Prehistoric Man, 1933.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the science of paleoanthropology looked a lot less complicated than it does now.  Fewer fossil discoveries and fewer species – coupled with fewer sites – offered scientific and public circles a different world of the paleo-sciences and human evolution 

When the Field Museum opened its Hall of the Stone Age of the Old World in 1933, the exhibit showcased eight dioramas of “prehistoric man.”  Accompanying the dioramas was a 76 page museum leaflet – Prehistoric Man.  This pamphlet  offered museum visitors additional interpretations and scientific insight.  (“We may bemoan the fact that no historian’s pen has chronicled for us the doings and sayings of the Neanderthalers and Cro-Magnons and that we must laboriously restore their life and appearance from more or less fortuitous remains of mute bone and stone.”)

Toward the back of the pamphlet is a map of the major European prehistoric fossil sites, then-current for 1933.  (Africa and its fossils like the Taung Child as well as the Middle East and Australia are quietly absent.)  The map, however, is more than just the geography of discoveries.  It is a contingent cartography, an object that is specific to its time and place.  Piltdown.  Yugoslavia.  Czechoslovakia.  Fossils and countries that are, themselves, historic entities.  The information that the map couldn’t – wouldn’t – be presented the same way in the twenty-first century, but conveys the then-current cachet for paleo-sciences and fossil discoveries.

The somewhat innocuous map from the Field Museum’s Prehistoric Man leaflet highlights the historical contingency of scientific discovery and cultural interpretation.

From Prehistoric Man, published by the Field Museum 1933.  (Online copy here.)