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Region: Cape Town to Cairo

Smithsonian African Expedition, map

Principal Collectors:

Edmund Heller

Edmund Heller

Naturalist and Director of the Smithsonian African Expedition (1919-1920)

The Smithsonian Institution asked Edmund Heller to direct the Smithsonian African Expedition in 1919 due to his previous experience on the famous Rainey African Expedition in 1909. Heller also conducted work as a naturalist on the expedition, and continued his work from the Rainey Expedition, studying large mammals. He wanted to expand on the volumes he had written with Theodore Roosevelt on "Life Histories of African Game Mammals" in 1914. Unfortunately, this expedition to Africa would be his last collecting effort.

Other Accomplishments:

-Received bachelor's degree in zoology from Stanford University (1901)
-Traveled to the Galapagos Islands with the Hopkins-Stanford Expedition (1898)
-The U.S. Geological Survey employed Heller to assist on the Osgood Alaskan Expedition (1900)
-Accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on the Rainey African Expedition (1909)
-Worked as a War Photographer in Siberia (1918-1919)
-Worked for the Roosevelt Wildlife Experiment Station and performed field studies of animals in Yellowstone National Park (1920)
-Curator of Mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago (1926-1928)
-Director of the Washington Park Zoo in Milwaukee

[Photo courtesy of Library of Congress]

Edmund Heller
Homer Shantz

Homer Shantz

Botanist and Photographer on the Smithsonian African Expedition (1919-1920)

Shantz worked as a field botanist and photographer on the Smithsonian African Expedition for the Smithsonian Institution and the Naval Department. While in Africa, he mapped the vegetation of the areas he traveled eventually publishing a "Vegetation Map of Africa" and The Vegetation and Soils of Africa with C.F. Marbut. He collected over 2,500 plants specimens for the Smithsonian and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition to his botanical work, Shantz took thousands of photographs and crafted beautiful watercolor paintings as he traversed the African terrain. Especially interesting to the cultural historian today is a set of 600 photos that Shantz took of the Urundi (Burundi) people and chiefs prior to the establishment of European presence. In 1956, he returned to the sites with the Geography Branch of the Office of Naval Research in an attempt to re-photograph the cultural and vegetation changes of the areas he traversed.

Other Accomplishments:

-Received bachelor's degree from Colorado College (1901)
-Received Doctorate from the University of Nebraska (1905)
-Served as the President of the University of Arizona (1928-1936)
- Became the 1st Chief of the Division of Wildlife Management U.S. Forest Service (1936-1958)

[Photo courtesy of the Botanical Society of America]

Homer Shantz

Smithsonian African Expedition - The Cape to Cairo Expedition


The Smithsonian African Expedition of 1919-1920, also known as the Cape to Cairo Expedition, was a promising exploration into the wilderness for the American adventurers. The expedition was requested by the American Commission to Negotiate Peace with the goal of establishing an inquiry into the crop producing possibilities of Africa.  The project was directed by Edmund Heller, head naturalist for large mammals at the Smithsonian Institution.  Homer Shantz, a botanist for the USDA’s Bureau of Plant Industry, was selected as the lead researcher for the expedition, and was accompanied by Henry Cushier Raven, the naturalist representing the Smithsonian. The expedition was a success; the botanists collected 1,000 botanical specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and 1,600 live plants to be replanted in the United States.

H.C. Raven and H.L. Shantz; photo courtesy of University of Arizona
H.C. Raven and H.L. Shantz; photo courtesy of University of Arizona
The expedition began on August 13, 1919, and traveled northward from Cape Town, South Africa, on the Steamship City of Benares. Along the route, Shantz was responsible for creating a vegetation map of the areas he traversed as well as identifying plant resources from the regions that could have potential use in future development in Africa or possible value to the United States. In a report to Congress, Charles D. Walcott, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, explains that the botanist had a mission to secure, “live plants of agricultural value for the introduction into the United States of the agricultural methods of both natives and Europeans,” and to collect “plants for the National Herbarium of the United States National Museum.”
Shantz fulfilled this mission, collecting several live plants that were sent directly to the Smithsonian Institution. The previously undescribed fern Pellaea longipilosa, the Poaceae species Rhynchelytrum shantzii from the Zaire region, and the cotton plant Gossypium nanking from the area around Nyonki, Sudan were all sent to the United States.

The expedition crew also collected hundreds of seeds that could be grown in the United States for agricultural purposes. Shantz gathered seeds from Acanthosicyos horrida, a cucurbitaceous plant that grows on the Namibian dunes and survives in hot, arid climate with little rainfall. It produces ostrich egg size fruits that can be eaten for their water content. He explains, "The plant is one which should be of great value to our Indians of the Southwest if once established on the sand dunes of Arizona and southern California. It is doubtful whether any plant can be obtained which seems offhand to give greater promise in that region than does this cucurbit." Shantz also suggested that Eragrostis abyssinica, commonly known as teff grass, could be a potential plant of value since it requires little rain and is adaptable in the Southwest region of the United States.

Shantz took numerous photographs along the expedition route. By the end of 1920, his over 3,500 photographs mainly depicted the natural plant cover of the surveyed area. The incredible amount of photographic documentation served later as a valuable tool for tracking the changing vegetation of the African landscape.

Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington DC: The
Smithsonian Institution, 1920.

Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington DC: The
Smithsonian Institution, Dec. 1921.

Inventory of Seeds and Plants Imported July 1922. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1922.

Inventory of Seeds and Plants Imported December 1922. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1922.

Shantz, H.L., and C.F. Marbut. The Vegetation and Soils of Africa. New York: National Research Council and the American Geographical Society, 1923.

Shantz, H.L., and B.L. Turner. Photographic Documentation of Vegetational Changes in Africa Over a Third of a Century. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1958.

"UAiR: Web Exhibits: Images of Africa - Homer L. Shantz."The University of Arizona Institutional Repository. University of Arizona, n.d. http://digitalcommons.arizona

Walcott, Charles. Report of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ending June 30, 1921. Washington DC: The Smithsonian Institution, 1921.

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