What the ‘loss’ of an unusual dinosaur reveals about how rich countries exploit the Global South
Some 97% of paleontology studies come from a handful of northern nations, often by taking advantage of unethical practices that pillage the natural treasures of poorer places
In December 2020, the paleontology world marveled at the discovery of a rare dinosaur specimen called Ubirajara jubatus, which was named after “lord of lances” in the Tupi language of Brazil and the Latin word for “crest.” The unique animal had feathers and four spikes near its neck. The 110 million-year-old dinosaur fossil was allegedly smuggled into Germany in 1995. Legally, the natural treasure could not have been taken out of Brazil. But 25 years later, it was under the care of scientists at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe.
Now, the Ubirajara jubatus has gone missing. Physically, it remains in Karlsruhe. But in scientific terms, it is lost in the limbo of species. After the study was published, protests over the ownership of the fossil forced the science journal Cretaceous Research to withdraw the paper. The Ubirajara vanished. When the scandal passed and the dust settled, many people in the paleontology world started to ask questions. And a formerly taboo topic came to the surface: colonialism.
During the colonial era, it was common for imperial powers to extract fossils from their colonies and take them back home to exhibit and study. “Now, what is happening is parachute science, where scientists from the richer countries go to poorer countries, collect fossils and information and then take them to their institutions, where they study them,” explains paleontologist Nussaibah Raja-Schoob, from the Erlangen-Nuremberg University in Germany. She points out that “there isn’t an exchange of knowledge with local researchers, similar to what happened during the colonial era.” Paleontologists are taking advantage of natural resources without leaving anything behind in exchange – neither contributing to local knowledge nor to educational training.
Raja-Schoob is one of seven paleontologists behind a study on parachute science that found that while some of the richest fossil deposits on the planet are in developing countries, during the last 30 years, 97% of fossil data has been produced by scientists in rich countries. According to the research, the legacy of colonialism has created a “global power imbalance in paleontology.” “Our findings show that colonial history and economics influence patterns that we observe in paleontology. To see it so clearly through the data was the biggest surprise for everyone,” says Raja-Schoob.
According to the study, the United States is the country that studies the most fossils, but many have been excavated from their home turf. Next on the list is Germany, the United Kingdom and France, which all, proportionally, exploit many fossils from third countries, usually without local collaboration. “I think that researchers from the whole world, especially the ones from the richest countries, should think about the consequences of not being committed to local communities and to a country’s researchers, when they are researching abroad,” says Raja-Schoob.
The paleontologist also participated in a new study on the history of two fossil-rich regions in Mexico and Brazil, two countries where exporting fossils is prohibited. Even so, there are plenty of irregularities, according to the study’s lead author, Juan Carlos Cisneros from Brazil’s Federal University of Piaui. “There is an enormous asymmetry. In archeology, this problem is discussed, in museums too, but in paleontology, it’s taboo. We have to talk about this because it exists, not sweep it under the rug,” Cisneros urges.
This asymmetry exists between countries that produce fossils, in the south, and countries that produce scientific knowledge from those materials, in the richer north, thanks to objects collected now or in the colonial past. As Spanish paleontologist Juan Carlos Gutierrez Marco, from the Geoscience Institute, explains, researchers commonly take advantage of material that has been collected decades ago. “There are many young people who don’t have the resources to go into the field, and so what do they do? They open museum drawers and they find a fossil from 80 or 180 years ago and they describe it because it’s a new dinosaur. And if that bone is from Africa, is that parachute science or colonialism? No, the problem is that there’s no money and they have used the museum’s resources,” he says.
A historical imbalance
The problem involves several different issues. First, there are the scientists from rich countries who buy fossils on the black market or export them illegally. Then, there are those who do research in other countries without sharing their knowledge or collaborating with local researchers. And finally, there is the issue of the paleontologists who take advantage of historical imbalances to publish research on fossils extracted decades ago.
Gutiérrez Marco remembers when Spain was a research site for other countries in the 1970s. “We have suffered from it for many years. In my youth, the Germans and Dutch came and took entire vans full of fossils, and of course, the Spanish part didn’t appear anywhere in their work,” he remembers.
Many countries that are sources of fossils have developed strict norms to stop parachuting, Argentina among them. But scientists say that as long as measures aren’t enforced from the inside, the problem will continue. As recent studies demonstrate, the issue has spread to countries such as Myanmar and the Dominican Republic, where pieces of amber with insects trapped inside, tens of millions of years old, are extracted. “The miners themselves are selling bags full of amber at an absolutely laughable price. And I haven’t bought them, even though there’s no law that tells me it’s illegal. You just don’t do those things,” says Enrique Peñalver, a paleontologist at the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME), who has worked with material from those countries.
Gutiérrez Marco and Peñalver explain that when they work in other countries, they seek to teach young scientists there and ensure that fossils remain in local institutions. But it is not always easy to collaborate, because governments often lack the resources to fund studies or doctorates. “I think that using the term colonialism is an exaggeration. There are clear cases of bad practices, but paleontologists aren’t going around robbing fossils like in the movies,” says Peñalver.
All the researchers interviewed agree that those bad practices are not only an ethical problem but also a scientific tragedy. “Paleontology is a science that depends a lot on the context where everything is found,” Cisneros says. “If you find a dinosaur in Brazil, you won’t just excavate that dinosaur. You will see everything around it: fossils of other species, where it came from, from what level. When you get a fossil on the black market, all of that is lost. Sometimes the fossils have even been adulterated. That information gets lost and it can’t be recovered. It’s bad science,” the researcher says.
Omar Regalado, a Mexican researcher at the German University of Tuebingen, has also denounced the problem, above all because he believes that it harms the field’s reputation. He insists it is not an issue specific to any one country. “It is a widespread problem. In Mexico, there are also practices of collecting decontextualized samples. We should ensure that foreigners don’t do things poorly, but we need to lead by example. We have to follow these ethical standards, so that we can demand them from the international community,” he says.
The controversy over the ownership of the Ubirajara has sparked a global conversation about the legacy of colonialism in paleontology. As for the fossil itself, the dispute about whether it belongs in Germany or Brazil is yet to be resolved. Raja-Schoob, for her part, is optimistic about the impact of her research into science parachuting. “We received some negative comments, but the positives definitely outnumber them,” she says. “Our articles have already been included in the reading material for students from many departments.”