The Zambian government is still pursuing a claim, first made in 1972, for the return of the famed Rhodesian Man from the Natural History Museum in London.
However, the UK government has refused to release key documents relating to the case, according to the Art Newspaper.
The 250,000-year-old fossilised skull was discovered in a mine in what was then Northern Rhodesia in 1921. The skull represents a Homo species that lacks some of the characteristics of extinct Neanderthals and modern mankind.
Rhodesian Man (Homo rhodesiensis) provides further evidence that humans came out of Africa. Instead of linear evolution—one species replacing the previous one—Africa was probably a melting pot of interbreeding human species, where Rhodesian Man may have lived alongside early Homo sapiens.
After the skull was discovered, the Rhodesia Broken Hill Development Company, which owned the mine, donated it to the Natural History Museum. It is one of the museum’s greatest treasures, representing invaluable evidence about human evolution.
In July 2019 The Art Newspaper submitted a request to the National Archives for three pages relating to discussions on the return of Rhodesian Man, removed from a 1973 file, to be opened up under the Freedom of Information Act. It seems surprising that 47-year-old papers relating to the 1921 discovery of a 250,000-year-old skull should be quite so sensitive.
These three pages took officials nearly six months to review, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office finally refused to release the papers in February, concluding that it “would harm UK relations with Zambia”—and “would be detrimental to the operation of government and not in the UK’s interest”.
Extensive Foreign and Commonwealth Office files provide an insight into what has gone on behind the scenes over the original claim. In 1972 the Zambian foreign ministry wrote to the UK high commission in Lusaka, arguing that the skull was “vital to the history of Zambia” and its return was requested.
The UK’s main argument against the claim was that the museum was legally unable to deaccession. Under a 1963 law, the museum can only deaccession duplicates, items unfit for use or post-1850 printed material. It also said the skull is normally on display and accessible for serious scientific research.
The fossilised skull of Rhodesian Man and other bones were discovered in 1921, 90 feet beneath the surface in the Broken Hill lead and zinc mine in what was then Northern Rhodesia. They were found by a Swiss supervisor, Tom Zwigelaar, and an unnamed African miner. Zwigelaar initially displayed the skull on a pole, to frighten his African miners, before it was spotted by a doctor who realised its potential significance.