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Gerhard Maier’s African Dinosaurs Unearthed: the Tendaguru Expeditions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Over the past few years, three really outstanding new volumes have been published on the history of Mesozoic dinosaur research and discovery. I’ve been able to read and review all of these works and have really enjoyed doing so. I’m going to reproduce all three reviews here; here’s the first of them – it was initially published in 2004.

Few people who have opened a dinosaur book will be unfamiliar with the image of the giant African Brachiosaurus skeleton displayed at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde*. It stands about 12 m tall, is something like 23 m long, and represents an animal that would have weighed between 28 and 47 tons, depending on whose estimate you believe (Colbert 1962; Paul 1988; Seebacher 2001). It is surrounded by other dinosaurs: the diplodocoid sauropod Dicraeosaurus, the stegosaur Kentrosaurus, the ornithopod Dysalotosaurus (=Dryosaurus) and the archaic theropod Elaphrosaurus. The importance of the Jurassic dinosaurs of Tendaguru (Tanzania), which include these five taxa, for our understanding and perception of dinosaur diversity, evolution, biogeography and palaeobiology cannot be overstated: it is no exaggeration to say that Tendaguru is one of the most important Mesozoic fossil sites in the world.

* Since this article was written and published, Mike Taylor (2009) has argued that the ‘African Brachiosaurus’ is distinct enough from the North American type species of BrachiosaurusB. brancai – to warrant distinction as Giraffatitan. This argument was originally put forward by Paul (1988). Note that all of the dinosaurs at the Museum für Naturkunde were re-mounted in new poses in 2005. The image of the re-mounted Giraffatitan shown here originally appeared here on SV-POW! and was taken by Matt Wedel. The amazing skull of Giraffatitan is shown below; photo by Dave Hone of Archosaur Musings.

In African Dinosaurs Unearthed, Gerhard Maier presents the full, detailed story of the Tendaguru excavations, from the discovery of the site by Bernhard Sattler in 1906 to the most recent works of 2001. Historical reviews of Tendaguru have been published before (e.g., Zils et al. 1995), but nothing as detailed as this. The volume will certainly be the standard reference on the history of Tendaguru from here on, and while it would prove enjoyable reading to anyone interested in historical palaeontology, or indeed the history of colonial Africa, it is also almost a technical volume with meticulously detailed source notes and a complete bibliography. The volume combines biography, historical narrative and scientific discovery, all set against the sociopolitical events of the 20th century.

Maier makes it clear early on that this book is not really about the scientific discoveries made at Tendaguru; it is instead concerned with the expeditions, the procurement and preparation of the fossils, and the people involved. Edwin Hennig and Werner Janensch are well known for their connections to Tendaguru, but some of the other expedition leaders based there over the years include Hans Reck, William Cutler, Frederick Migeod (apparently pronounced mee-zhoh) and John Parkinson. Some people that worked at Tendaguru later became better known for work elsewhere in the palaeontological world. Louis S. B. Leakey worked at Tendaguru during 1924 and Francis Rex Parrington was there in 1930. William Swinton was due to work at Tendaguru in 1926 but dropped out due to health reasons. When you add to all this the names of the other palaeontologists, native workers, financial backers, museum preparators, administrative staff and military personnel involved, the number of people that need to be kept track of is considerable and I could forgive myself for getting confused at times. A huge amount of biographical work is included on most of these people; in many cases, more than has been published in any single work before.

Digital reconstruction of the Tendaguru stegosaur Kentrosaurus, (c) Andreas Meyer.

Maier’s coverage is so thorough that he discusses far more than just the dinosaurs. Invertebrates, fish, squamates, pterosaurs and mammals have been described from Tendaguru, and he also covers the extensive debates that arose concerning the stratigraphy and age of the deposits. Palaeontological and geological collection was not the only aim of work at Tendaguru and literally thousands of modern plant and animal specimens were collected.  Many points stuck in my mind. The (likely apocryphal) story of Sattler’s discovery of the site is intriguingly similar to the (also likely apocryphal) story of Walcott’s discovery of the Burgess Shale. Sattler alerted the director of his firm, Wilhelm Arning; Arning notified the Commission for the Geographical Investigation of the Protectorates; and in August 1907 Eberhard Fraas arrived at Tendaguru, the first of so many scientists to do so. There followed the outstandingly successful 1909, 1909–10, 1911 and 1912–13 expeditions of Janensch, Hennig and Reck. [Photo of Werner Janensch below from here].

Werner Janensch, photographed in the field in 1910. Nice helmet!

Following the end of WWI Germany lost her colonies to the Allied powers, and what had been Deutsch Ostafrika now belonged to Britain. The geologist and engineer Charles Hobley had clearly been keeping close tabs on Tendaguru for as early as 1918 he urged Arthur Smith Woodward to exploit the site, the result being successive expeditions led by the British Museum (Natural History) to Tendaguru from 1919 to 1930. As Maier explains, the British approach to Tendaguru was rather different from the German one, though ultimately both were extremely successful. This has always been less obvious for the British discoveries, given that the British Museum (Natural History) did not publish its results.

The hardships endured in the field were clearly considerable at times and included shortages of food and material, wildfires, flooding, disease and sickness, difficulties with post and transport, the dangers posed by man-eating lions, and an absence of outcrops. British expeditions in particular suffered from lack of funding. Cutler paid the ultimate personal price at Tendaguru, his premature death (at age 47) from malaria being exacerbated by other health problems. As for technical difficulties with the fossils themselves, Migeod suffered from a lack of experience in palaeontological identification and was without assistance, despite requests for such. Consequently he made a number of interesting mistakes, (mis)identifying plesiosaurs, giant birds, horned dinosaurs and pterosaur skulls from the bones of other animals. Unlike Migeod, Parkinson was a trained geologist and provided a new perspective on the stratigraphy and palaeoenvironment of Tendaguru. One interesting fact that Maier does not note is that Parkinson was a fan of Hay and Tornier’s idea that sauropods walked in a sprawling lizard-like posture (Parkinson 1930).

And while on the subject of sprawling sauropods, I was fascinated to learn that in 1912 Tornier managed to get permission from Kaiser Wilhelm II to remount the Berlin Diplodocus cast in the belly-dragging pose that he advocated. Needless to say this never occurred. [Belly-dragging sauropod by Heinrich Harder depicted here; from this 2010 article at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurus].

Germany’s contribution to the Tendaguru excavations may have come to an end for the time being, but a new part of the story was to begin: the between-the-wars reconstructing and mounting of the dinosaurs at the Museum für Naturkunde. Against the background of riots, strikes, and an unbelievable economic slump (at the height of which, one US dollar was equivalent to 4.2 trillion marks), Berlin’s museum curators were dedicated enough to continue the preparation of the Tendaguru dinosaurs. The stegosaur Kentrosaurus was first to be mounted (1924) and Maier’s description of the techniques used prove that the Germans faced and overcame the problems encountered by museum technicians today.

Elaphrosaurus was next, being mounted in 1926, and was followed by Dicraeosaurus (1930/1) [the adjacent composite shows the original Elaphrosaurus mount above (from Peter Bond’s Blog) and the new one below (image Aktron/Wikimedia Commons)]. As Maier explains, the mounted dicraeosaur was a composite, and not just of more than one individual, but of both dicraeosaur species. I was also interested to learn that the characteristic neck and skull pose of the skeleton (much copied in artwork and even in other mounted dicraeosaur skeletons) was not the planned pose but a compromise resulting from distortion. These dinosaur skeletons were, however, small jobs compared to the mounting of SII, the famous Brachiosaurus skeleton. The original plan was actually to mount a full-sized replica. The swastika banners that hung from behind the brachiosaur skeleton at its unveiling in August 1937 heralded the horror to come. What happened to Berlin and London during WWII, discussed here in depth, makes the book essential reading to anyone interested in the wartime history of museum collections.

Little would have happened at Tendaguru were it not for the manpower supplied by native Africans, and indeed one of the few constant presences throughout the book is the African guide and supervisor Boheti bin Amrani. Maier explains how various expedition leaders differed in their opinions of the Africans and their abilities, but it is clear that many native workers became skilled at preparation and osteological identification. A few interesting diversions link Tendaguru to other major areas of palaeontological discovery, including the Karoo, Olduvai Gorge and Kadzi. Maier concludes the book with the Tendaguru research renaissance of recent years and with a chapter on recent and current technical work on the Tendaguru fossils.  Plates include most available photos of the relevant persons, the quarries and exposed bones, and of the Berlin dinosaur skeletons during the various stages of preparation and mounting. One thing I would have liked to have seen was a 20th century timeline illustrating the chronology of events at Tendaguru. As with other IUP books the standard of editing is very high: a few technical names are spelt wrongly in the last chapter of the book but that’s about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed African Dinosaurs Unearthed and recommend it to anyone interested in the history of research on Mesozoic fauna. As a story of personal toil in the African bush, as a detailed source on Hennig, Janensch, Cutler and other palaeontologists, as a story of palaeontological discovery, and as a meticulous documentation of the history and discoveries of Tendaguru, it exceeds expectations and sets a high standard.

Maier, G. 2003. African Dinosaurs Unearthed: the Tendaguru Expeditions. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34214-7 (hardback). 380 pp. £37.95.

This review originally appeared in The Palaeontological Association Newsletter 56 (available for download here) and is reproduced here with permission. The review can be cited as…

Naish, D. 2004. Book reviews: African Dinosaurs Unearthed: the Tendaguru ExpeditionsThe Palaeontological Association Newsletter 56, 128-131.

For previous Tet Zoo articles mentioning or discussing the dinosaurs of Tendaguru, see…

Refs – -

Colbert, E. H. 1962. The weights of dinosaurs. American Museum Novitates 2076, 1–16.

Parkinson, J. 1930. The Dinosaur in East Africa. H. F. & G. Witherby (London).

Paul, G. S. 1988. The brachiosaur giants of the Morrison and Tendaguru with a description of a new subgenus, Giraffatitan, and a comparison of the world’s largest dinosaurs. Hunteria 2, 1–14.

Seebacher, F. 2001. A new method to calculate allometric length–mass relationships of dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 21, 51–60.

Taylor, M. P.  2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29, 787-806.

Zils, W., Werner, C., Moritz, A., & Saanane, C. (1995). Tendaguru, the most famous dinosaur locality of Africa. Review, survey and future prospects Documenta Naturae, 97, 1-41

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jerzy New 6:08 am 11/28/2011

    What is going on at Tendaguru now?

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  2. 2. Dartian 6:54 am 11/28/2011

    Great review, Darren!

    in 1912 Tornier managed to get permission from Kaiser Wilhelm II to remount the Berlin Diplodocus cast in the belly-dragging pose that he advocated

    He needed the Kaiser’s permission for that?! I knew that Wilhelm II had a (too) high opinion of his own intellectual abilities, but I didn’t know that he considered himself an expert on dinosaurs too…

    swastika banners that hung from behind the brachiosaur skeleton at its unveiling in August 1937

    Did Hitler ever visit the museum in person?

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  3. 3. iljajj 7:13 am 11/28/2011

    There is no evidence that Tornier actually got the Kaiser’s permission – indeed, the museum didn’t need it. What happened is that Tornier and Hansemann showed the Kaiser and some of his entourage round in March of 1912, where they discussed re-mounting the Diplodocus. Tornier wasn’t even in the Geological Museum (part of the Humboldt; he was working for the zoological museum in the same building), so technically had no say over the exhibit, but he was in the board of one of the societies that financed the Tendaguru excavations. He would have had some influence, but probably not enough to sway the opinion of the geological museum’s czar, Wilhelm von Branca. In any case, the flood of material coming in from Tendaguru, and the work attached to that, pretty much scuppered these ambitions.

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  4. 4. David Marjanović 8:26 am 11/28/2011

    Frederick Migeod (apparently pronounced mee-zhoh)

    That’s of course the original French pronunciation.

    the flood of material coming in from Tendaguru, and the work attached to that

    Been there (in the Bone Cellar, 2 years ago), seen the still unopened crates from before WWI.

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  5. 5. Therizinosaurus 9:01 am 11/28/2011

    Did Kentrosaurus really have such a large distalmost tail spike pair?

    Also, it’s funny to see the Elaphrosaurus mounted with a Velociraptor skull, though I guess in 1926 the latter was an exciting new coelurid…

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  6. 6. naishd 9:37 am 11/28/2011

    Thanks for comments. In response to Jerzy: certainly, much continues to be published on Tendaguru (Oliver Rauhut only just published a new analysis of the Tendaguru theropods – there’s a carcharodontosaurian there!), but I can’t say that I know what has been happening at the field sites. As is well known among dinosaur workers, there is still a large amount of Tendaguru material in museum collections that has never been examined or described in print.


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  7. 7. naishd 9:43 am 11/28/2011

    Ilja (comment 3): Ok, nicely argued. I was paraphrasing Maier, who wrote…

    “According to Tornier, the kaiser agreed to have the plaster cast of Diplodocus remounted in the stomach-dragging, lizard-like pose advocated by both Tornier and the American paleontologist Oliver Hay” (p. 86).

    Dartian (comment 2): Maier never mentions Hitler, so I don’t know. Does anyone?


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  8. 8. naishd 9:53 am 11/28/2011

    Therizinosaurus (comment 5) (aka Mickey): old photos of the Elaphrosaurus show it with a plaster replica skull that was a weird hybrid between the skulls of Compsognathus and Ornitholestes. I don’t know when this was replaced with the Velociraptor replica.

    As for the kentrosaur’s distal spike pair, remember that we don’t really know how big the spikes were in life, since the keratin-sheathed organs on the living animal could well have been far larger than the preserved bony cores. If you compare Meyer’s CG model with Heinrich Mallison’s CAD version (here), you’ll see that the spikes are not the same size (that is, those of the real kentrosaur are rather smaller). However, I’m not totally sure that Meyer’s stegosaur is necessarily a kentrosaur: the same model features in my new book Dinosaur Record Breakers where it stands in for Loricatosaurus (famous for its insanely long spikes, originally suggested by Galton to be shoulder spikes).


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  9. 9. Heinrich Mallison 11:53 am 11/28/2011

    Nothing is going on at Tendaguru. Not that people haven’t been trying.

    Regarding the distal-most spike pair:
    especially Fig. 3

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  10. 10. iljajj 3:53 pm 11/28/2011

    @Naishd (comment 9): Maier bases his statement on a newspaper article, nothing improper there. But the newspaper was taking Tornier’s word for granted, and the good doctor was probably a tad too optimistic.

    Significantly, however, when Tornier and the artist Heinrich Harder worked together on the facade for the Berlin acquarium in 1913, they adorned it with reliefs of various lizard-like dinosaurs, including a slithering incarnation of Charles Knight’s Agathaumas (here called Triceratops). In other German museums, lizard-like reconstructions would keep cropping up well into the 1930s. (I’m busy writing a book about this, so should probably keep shtum about other details…)

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  11. 11. 6:21 pm 11/28/2011

    “This argument was originally put forward by Paul (1988).”

    Extremely minor nitpick: as I recall, Paul erected the subgenus Brachiosaurus (Giraffatitan). Someone else (Olshevsky?) later raised it to genus level. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

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  12. 12. Heinrich Mallison 7:05 pm 11/28/2011

    other way round, IIRC: Olshevsky suggested subgenus, Paul made it a genus.

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  13. 13. naishd 7:26 pm 11/28/2011

    Mike Keesey is right: Paul (1988) suggested ‘subgenus’; Olshevsky (1991) saw fit to raise it to ‘genus’. This was mostly ignored until Mike Taylor’s work. In referring to Paul’s argument, I meant that he originally proposed a distinction that should be reflected at some level taxonomically higher than species level.


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  14. 14. Halbred 8:08 pm 11/28/2011

    I’ve always detested the concept of a “sub-genus.” It just muddles the waters more, and feels like a complete cop-out, taxonomically speaking. My thoughts anyway.

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  15. 15. Heinrich Mallison 2:10 am 11/29/2011

    Yep, Mike was correct, I mixed this up – sorry!

    @Halbred: I’d forgo taxon ranks entirely, and go for a one-word name for species :)

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  16. 16. naishd 4:14 am 11/29/2011

    I’d say that ‘subgenera’ do have their usefulness (in, that is, a ranked Linnaean nomenclature) – but this is only obvious when you’re carving up a genus of numerous species, not two! So, in a Linnaean system, it might be obvious that – say – Anas, Varanus or Anolis contains species groups that deserve recognition, but those groups still fall within the concept of the ‘genus’ Anas, Varanus, Anolis or whatever. In an unranked, phylogenetic nomenclatural system, you shouldn’t be afraid to name clades all the way down, as it were, so an entity traditionally identified as a ‘genus’ can include numerous subdivisions above the species level. Some traditional ‘subgenera’ do win out as clades and hence warrant recognition. Many don’t. Typically, this isn’t something vertebrate palaeontologists have to worry about, since their ‘genera’ rarely contain more than one, two or three species.

    Bottom-line: sub-generic divisions do indeed have their place.


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