Ten years of history of Perugia University Paleoanthropology School

Cultural exchanges between Italy and the Maasai community in Tanzania

«Africa is rich, it is the rest of the world that is poor» (Jonathan Kingdon).
In this rather critical period for museums, we need memory to be able to think about tomorrow. Learning, understanding, sharing and loving our past history can free us and help in increasing our resistance.


The CAMS (Athenaeum Centre for Scientific Museums), together with the Department of Physics and Geology of the University of Perugia, created in 2010 a new institution of the Umbrian Athenaeum, the School of Paleoanthropology, with the main objective of spreading a deeper knowledge of the origin and evolution of the human species.

The School of Paleoanthropology

This venture was made possible thanks to the co-operation with a variety of other academic organisations, both Italian and International, which offered their full support towards this new institution. Thus, since its establishment, the School of Paleoanthropology of the University of Perugia started carrying out its didactic, educational, scholastic and research functions, with the utmost openness towards external institutions, involving researchers and scholars from far beyond the restricted scope of the Umbrian region or Italy.

Indeed, amongst the variety of activities carried out by the School of Paleoanthropology, beside an annual course divided into two levels (the first being introductory and the second a specialisation) addressed to participants from any origin and cultural background (thus not limited to researchers of the field but also extended to simple enthusiasts), School Camps also feature, with didactic objectives and real actual fieldwork, organised annually in one of the most important geo-paleontological and paleoanthropological sites on the planet, the Olduvai Gorges, in Tanzania (eastern Africa).

This site, which is nowadays protected by the UNESCO as World Heritage Site, is where some of the most famous figures of the history of Paleoanthropology worked, such as the spouses Louis and Mary Leakey who, thanks to their pioneering research, opened up from mid-19th century, the road to generations of scholars who contributed exceptionally to the growth of research on human evolution.

Ian Tattersal, curator of the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, presents to Fidelis T. Masao (University of Dar es Salaam), one of Africa’s leading prehistoric archaeologists, a recognition for his ten-year commitment to the organization of the scientific activities of the School of Paleoanthropology of Perugia, at the Leakey Camp in the Olduvai Gorges in Tanzania (22th February 2020)
Olduvai Gorges

Some of the most famous hominid remains in paleoanthropological history were found in the Olduvai Gorge, such as the renowned Paranthropus boisei (also known as Zinji or Nutcracker Ma) OH5 cranium and the first Homo habilis skeletal remains, as well as plenty lithic artefacts and the remains of abundant Pleistocene fauna.

All of this paleobiodiversity legacy is today considered a main cultural asset by the government of the United Republic of Tanzania and therefore the School of Paleoanthropology of the University of Perugia signed a number of agreements for mutual co-operation with all the local institutions in charge of managing the Olduvai site, especially the Board of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (in whose Protected Area the Olduvai Gorges are located), the Department of Antiquities, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism and the Dar Es Salaam University.

Moreover, the School of Paleanthropology wanted to strengthen its presence in the Olduvai Gorges site by establishing, as much as possible, strong relationships of mutual respect and co-operation directly with the local communities, namely with those human realities that have been managing the natural resources of those territories since old times, such as the rural clans of the Maasai population in the Olduvai, Naibor Soit, Kellogi and Olbalbal areas. The relationships with these communities have been growing more and more during the years, and the activities of the School Camps have offered, both to the locals and Italian participants, greater opportunities to develop mutual forms of knowledge and to share common experiences.

Interculturality for the cultural and natural heritage preservation

This has created an interesting experience of full multiculturalism which has seen its peak in the last years with the local running of free courses of mutual cultural exchange, on one part representatives of the Maasai community, and on the other hand Italian researchers and scholars. The former were involved in explaining aspects of their cultural world and the interrelationship between their shepherding semi-nomadic societies and natural resources, the latter willing to share the results of their research setting them in a wider scientific point of view with the aim of spreading a greater local awareness of the importance of protecting and safeguarding the immense natural and cultural legacy of those regions.

Satisfied with the achieved outcomes of these first 10 years of activities with the local communities in Olduvai, the School of Paleoanthropology of the University of Perugia intends to continue along these lines during its future research missions in that region, as well as to launch official and annual cultural exchange activities with full continuity and with increased direct involvement of all the population of the villages in that area. The main goal of all of this is to create a real community experience of continuous cultural exchange with the objective of protecting those regions, unique areas both on continental level and in the whole world, where the evidence of our most remote past merges together with the current rich biodiversity, a natural and cultural legacy of immense value which the local communities must learn to manage adequately and with a long term prospective, for all of us.

Sergio Gentili

Sergio Gentili

Naturalist, Vertebrate Paleontologist, he works in the Natural History Gallery of the University Centre for the Scientific Museums of the University of Perugia. He has been dealing with Vertebrate Paleontology for years and he has carried out numerous paleontological excavations in Umbria and in many other important Italian geopaleontological sites. He mainly deals with scientific museology, scientific education and dissemination in museums. He has published numerous articles in specialized and popular scientific journals, and has participated in numerous national and international congresses.

Angelo Barili

Angelo Barili

Naturalist, scientific illustrator, he works in the Natural History Gallery of the University Centre for the Scientific Museums of the University of Perugia. For years he has carried out many activities of ecological education and scientific dissemination in museums, mainly in Vertebrate Paleontology, Zoology and Tropical Biogeography. He has actively participated in numerous field study and research campaigns in Italy and abroad (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Costa Rica, Brazil).