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Scientists are in the midst of a heated debate over the transport of rare fossils into space, with accusations of callousness, recklessness, and unethical behavior being thrown around.

The intention was to make a big statement that would bring attention to South African science. This involved sending prehistoric bones from the Cradle of Humankind site on a Virgin Galactic flight last month. However, the outcome was not what was expected. The team responsible for the research, led by palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger, has faced widespread criticism for allowing the ancient bones to be used in this manner.

Initially, some scientists expressed skepticism about the fossils being sent into space. However, this has escalated into a strong backlash from prominent experts and academic organizations, with many condemning the action as insensitive, unethical, poorly planned, a mere publicity stunt, reckless, and completely irresponsible.

There is increasing pressure to strengthen both national and international regulations in order to prevent the exploitation of ancient bones and artifacts belonging to humanity’s ancestors. Researchers are urging that the use of fossils for promotional purposes never happens again.

Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London stated that six national and international organizations have denounced the space project and it is hoped that a similar incident will not occur in the future.

Professor Mark Collard, who holds the Canada research chair in human evolutionary studies, supported this statement. In an interview with the Observer last week, he emphasized that the remains of ancient human species are scarce and therefore must be protected for scientific purposes only. This recent incident cannot be justified as scientifically necessary.

The objects, which were the earliest remains of human ancestors to depart from Earth, included a 2 million-year-old Australopithecus sediba collarbone and a 250,000-year-old Homo naledi thumb bone. They were transported on a flight on September 8th, reaching an altitude of 88km above Earth’s surface, by Tim Nash, a billionaire from South Africa. Nash expressed his humility and honor in representing both South Africa and all of humanity while carrying these valuable representations of our shared ancestors.

The fossils come from species that were first found by teams led by Berger in an area near Johannesburg that is now known as the Cradle of Humankind. Australopithecus sediba was discovered there in 2008 and Homo naledi in 2013. Berger also helped in the selection of the two pieces that were carried by Nash.

Skull of Homo naledi, with a big gap near the left eye socket

Unfortunately, in accordance with the scientific guidelines of South Africa and other nations, fossils are only permitted to be transported for scientific reasons and must be properly packaged. It has been revealed that the two bones were stored in a tube that Nash carried in his pocket while floating inside the Virgin Galactic spaceship.

“They transported these valuable specimens to space, where they were at risk of being destroyed,” stated Collard. “It was highly irresponsible and solely for the purpose of showmanship. Berger has a history of such actions.”

“The concerning aspect of this situation is that the authorities permitted it to occur. They did not consult with others in the same field to gauge their potential reactions, and that is the most concerning aspect of this matter. While individuals may make mistakes, there should be a system in place to prevent such occurrences. It is imperative that this be rectified with urgency.”

Berger stated that sending the fossils into space was a deliberate choice made after thorough evaluation and extensive conversations with governing bodies and regulatory agencies. He reassured that all required authorizations and licenses were obtained and precautions were taken to guarantee the safety of the fossils.

Professor Andy Herries, an expert in human origins from La Trobe University in Melbourne, expressed disagreement. He stated to the Observer that this occurrence should concern those who are anxious about the blending of authentic science and the exploitation of valuable fossils for the sake of entertainment and promotion.

According to Herries, he was particularly worried because a fossil known as the collarbone of Australopithecus sediba was a type specimen. A type specimen serves as a standard for comparison with other fossil pieces, and its absence would have been extremely concerning, he explained.

Stringer supported this idea. The sediba fossil held great significance as it was the initial bone found from this species and was designated as part of the type skeleton, which serves as the scientific benchmark for identifying the species. However, during the flight, it remained in billionaire Tim Nash’s pocket. If any major issues had occurred, it likely would have been permanently lost to science.

According to Stringer, Berger should be highly praised for the significant role he played in uncovering Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi. However, he expressed concern about the risky decision to send fossils of these species to outer space.

According to Berger, he has taken note of the concerns expressed by the scientific community regarding the use of fossils and heritage artifacts for public engagement in science. He believes there is a need for renewed discussion and consideration of the processes and permissions involved. Despite this, he also acknowledges that scientists are most effective when they challenge each other to continuously learn and reflect. He remains dedicated to ongoing dialogue.

Berger has a history of stirring up controversy. Recently, he made the bold statement that discoveries in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system indicate that Homo naledi exhibited advanced behavior nearly 250,000 years before humans started creating burial sites and art, despite having brain sizes comparable to chimpanzees.

Later, other reviewers criticized these statements as “unwise and insufficient”, while some rejected them as primarily based on assumptions instead of evidence. One reviewer even stated that the evidence presented was not convincing.

Source: theguardian.com