Postgraduate Lives: Amy Staniforth, student at Birmingham University

In pursuit of the ape man of Tanzania

Amy Staniforth, 29, is writing a PhD on the search for human origins in Tanzania, at Birmingham University

One day, while doing my first degree, I saw a poster in the university corridor asking for people to work for a conservation organisation in Tanzania. You basically had to raise money and then go there as a dogsbody for three months; we were warned that it was not a glorified safari.

It was my first time in Africa and it sounds awful but I had no image beforehand, my mind was a blank state. But the landscape turned out to be more familiar than I thought it would be, and I realised I had seen images of East Africa, for example in films and on television.

I then did an MA in literature and environment in the States and I became interested in how public culture represents Africa and how ordinary people in the West see Africa, which is usually influenced by appeals for money for disaster relief or nature documentaries. East Africa is famed for its nature and its wildlife; according to this image it's an unpeopled paradise.

For my PhD I'm looking at these images alongside the discovery of human remains. My focal point is Dr Mary Leakey's discovery of the skull of Zinjanthropus boisei, an "ape man" who became known as Zinj. The 1959 discovery at Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania was all over the world within days and people were fascinated, this was supposed to be "earliest man" and the first toolmaker. It was all a bit over the top.

I'm looking at how this was reported in the British and other press and how Tanzania was represented in these reports, but I'm then flipping it over and looking at what was happening there at the time. People forget that this was the period of peaceful transition to independence, and that Leakey's discovery came the same year that the Tanganyika African National Union and its leader, Julius Nyerere, successfully petitioned for self-government from Britain. The popular idea of Africa as the origin of humankind often ignores any mention of colonial or post-colonial past; the search for human origins is tainted with imperial nostalgia.

I also wanted to see how a newly independent country deals with ancient origins. Zinj was returned to Tanzania from Kenya in 1965, after being toured all over the world. He was then put in the Dar es Salaam museum and is still there, but in a storeroom not on display. Zinj is still hugely important in Tanzania. His skull is now used in the museum's logo and there is a big celebratory ceremony at Olduvai Gorge every year. But over here people don't know about Zinj, he's not hugely famous now and that's what I like about it.