South African hominin fossils were sent to space, and scientists are angry
The fossils were preserved in their carbon fiber tube that they were stored in were taken on the space mission. Wits University
The moment the Virgin Galactic commercial flight soared into space on September 8, 2023 There were 2 Virgin Galactic pilots, an instructor, and three passengers on the plane – in addition to two fossils belonging to prehistoric cousins that came from South Africa. Timothy Nash, a businessman, had a clavicle that belonged to Australopithecus sediba as well as the thumb bone from the Homo Naledi specimen. The brief trip – VSS Unity’s flight took less than an hour orchestrated by Palaeontologist Lee Berger, who led the team that found and identified Homo Naledi in 2015. Berger obtained an export licence on July 1st from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) to transport the fossils out of the country towards US. US launch site of the VSS Unity. SAHRA is an “national administrative institution responsible for the safeguarding of South Africa’s culture tradition “.
The event has sparked the ire of many researchers studying human evolution who hail from South Africa and beyond. Some have declared the event “unethical” and a “publicity stunt”. Berger made an uncontained declaration about X (formerly Twitter) on 25 September to address the issue. Then SAHRA, in the form of a statement published by Nature, stated that they were “satisfied that the benefit earned was proportionately balanced against the inherent risks that travel of this kind carries. “.
The Conversation Africa spoke to Dipuo Winnie Kotleng, director at the Palaeo-Research Institute at the University of Johannesburg, and Robyn Pickering, who is co-director of the Human Evolution Research Institute at the University of Cape Town, about what caused the space mission to cause the unhappiness.
Why do scientists get so upset over the fossils that are being sent to space?
There are many reasons.
One of the threats is one is the threat to South African heritage. As per the SAHRA permit policy, fossils of this kind are not allowed to travel for research and should be packed securely to prevent destruction. The fossils traveled through space inside sealed tubes. They were later placed in the pocket of an individual as he floated about.
There is no reason in science for allowing fossils from these eras to travel into space. There is no new information created, and no group, whether international or local, is involved in this research.
Furthermore, radiation levels that these fossils were exposed to during the trip may have permanently altered the fossil’s microstructure, impacting any information that might be needed in the near future.
A other issue could be that A. sediba clavicle represents a type specimen. It is the first physical instance of the species. And should an object be destroyed or lost, the specimen is lost forever.
In the end, this incident revealed the unequal power relationships involved in getting access to this valuable heritage. Certain local communities – such as those of Taung the place where the 2.8 million-year-old child’s skull called Taung Child Taung Child has been found in 1924 and have sought access to fossil specimens which originate from their area. With regard to Taung, the Taung Child, there have been discussions “over a long time” about having the skull returned to the institution where it is kept.
Then, are it only famous, wealthy white males who be able to access fossils? The poor do not have the same rights?