By Bernard Verdcourt
Ludwig Kohl was born at Landau in the Pfalz (Palatinate) a region to the west of the Rhine just above the tributary Lauter, the wine area known as the Südliche Weinstrasse. Already when a student of medicine he was drawn to travel, a desire for which was to be abundantly fulfilled. He became a good skier and climber and developed interests in various branches of natural history. These interests led him to enter the Colonial Service and participate in expeditions devoted to scientific discovery. His first was as a doctor on a ship sailing to the South Atlantic, part of Wilhelm Filchner’s great Antarctic expedition. Unfortunately Ludwig was struck with an acute illness and had an operation on board ship (possibly appendicitis). He was deeply disappointed to give up the expedition and stayed on South Georgia where one month later he met the women who was to become his wife and companion for life – Margit Larsen. She was the daughter of a Norwegian captain. The following year Ludwig and his bride – they had now adopted the double name Kohl-Larsen – went to Lappland where he practised as a doctor and later to Mesopotamia as a doctor and archaeologist.
Margit became a constant collaborator in his travels and work. He was a member of the Tell-Halaf Expedition under the leadership of Max Freiherr von Oppenheim and during this year-long undertaking already showed his capability of getting on well with his colleagues, an essential in any expedition (but unhappily so often by no means a noticeable trait in members of expeditions). It was particularly useful when dealing with the often difficult Bedouin. Ludwig obtained a post on the island of Yapp in the South Seas as Government Doctor but his future plans were wrecked by the First World War but after his return he visited Japan and America. The next five years were spent in Finmarken (the extreme upper part of Norway at about 70°N 25°E) doing medical and ethnological research. He and his wife made another expedition to the Antarctic in 1928–1929 and he was the first person to reach the centre of South Georgia. In 1931 he joined the great Zeppelin journey over the Eurasian Arctic zone. Hanjürgen Müller-Beck’s obituary states that the high point of his field work was, however, his two trips to East Africa in 1934–1936 and 1937–1939, but there must have been a third since all the molluscs he collected in Tanzania were collected in late 1932 and 1933. Perhaps he was in Africa between 1932 and 1936.
The Leakey family has so dominated the study of prehistoric man in East Africa that others in the field are scarcely known to non-specialists. Ludwig became well known in this field when in 1935 he discovered fragments of a highly specialised Upper Pleistocene human skull near the shores of Lake Eyasi. Four years later he discovered fragments which were described as Meganthropus africanus Weinert and very many other fossil animals in the Laetolil beds, an area the study of which was to be written up in the magnificent work edited by Mary Leakey and J.M. Harris (1987). He was interested in the arid areas with seasonal rivers and investigated all aspects collecting ethnological, palaeontological, geological and climatological data and that relating to prehistoric man. He made the first contact with the hunter-gathering tribe the Tindiga (Hadza) and related groups living near them and also a complete recording of all the cave paintings he could find in the area. He made stratigraphical investigations carefully recording animal and subhuman fossils from each layer. This very varied work was recognised by the University of Freiburg who made him an Honorary Professor in 1939 and finally he was called to Tübingen two years later. However, here renewed army service interrupted the writing up of all his results and the consequences of the war prevented his return to Tübingen. Later he was sacked from his job in 1949 (possibly for right wing views?) but this was mitigated in 1953 when he was given Professor Emeritus status.
In spite of all the difficulties in the post-war years he and his wife published their results almost completely with the help of the Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft and many private supporters; this included works on the East African rock paintings and a monograph on the Tindiga people. Of great importance was the recording of the myths, legends and fairy tales of these fast disappearing people which, but for him and his wife, would have disappeared without trace. This work was finished by Mrs Larsen after the death of her husband and published by the Institute of Prehistory of the University of Tübingen. Their work provides a basis for much future field work and they will be remembered for their work not only in Tübingen but in centres of African prehistory everywhere.
We are only concerned with collections of molluscs made around Ngorongoro. As in so many cases I do not think Kohl-Larsen was particularly interested in molluscs himself but clearly someone had encouraged him, possibly Fritz Haas himself who had been in Africa the previous year.
I am grateful to my colleague Monica Shaffer-Fehre for translating Müller-Beck’s obituary for me.
List of molluscs described from material collected by Ludwig Kohl-Larsen in East Africa
Gulella kohl-larseni (Haas).
Gonaxis denticulatus (Dohrn).
Gulella (Primigulella) usagarica satura (Haas).
Probably a Haplohelix.
Afroconulus concavispira (Haas) but probably the same as A. iredalei (Preston).