A fossilized skeleton of an ancient crocodile-like organism that lived in what’s now Brazil.
A fossilized skeleton of an ancient crocodile-like organism that lived in what’s now Brazil.

Q&A: Paleontology’s Colonial Legacy

Archaeologist and paleontologist Juan Carlos Cisneros tells The Scientist that researchers frequently fail to involve local groups—and sometimes violate laws—when studying Latin American fossils.

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Dan Robitzski

Dan is a Staff Writer and Editor at The Scientist. He writes and edits for the news desk and oversees the “The Literature” and “Modus Operandi” sections of the monthly TS Digest and quarterly print magazine. He has a background in neuroscience and earned his master's in science journalism at New York University.

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Mar 3, 2022

ABOVE: Skeleton of the crocodyliform Susisuchus anatoceps from Brazil, which was illicitly exported and then stored at State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, Germany FELIPE PINHEIRO

Despite Latin American countries’ attempts to curb the illicit sale or acquisition of fossils and artifacts by researchers from other countries, the fields of paleontology and archaeology are still rife with colonial attitudes, according to a paper published yesterday (March 2) in Royal Society Open Science.

The study, which involved a literature review of the past 30 years’ worth of academic papers describing vertebrate fossils that were discovered in either Northeastern Mexico or Brazil’s Araripe Basin, calculated how many papers included Mexican or Brazilian authors and research institutes, how many mentioned acquiring permits to study or take the fossils, and how many noted either purchasing the fossil—which is illegal in both countries—or failing to return it when the research was complete. The results suggest that paleontologists from other countries, especially Japan and European nations, tend to flout legal frameworks intended to protect and preserve Latin American fossils, and often conduct their work without the input of scientists or institutions in the regions where the fossils were found.

The study “is really game changing,” Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology paleontologist Jeff Liston, who didn’t work on the paper, tells Science. “Elevating this stuff from the anecdotal and quantifying it like this is the only way that we’re going to make any progress.”

I hear that paleontology has always been this way; it’s not going to change. But we must start somewhere.

Other researchers, especially those whose work was called out by the paper, were less enthusiastic.

“I think it’s horrendously biased,” University of Portsmouth paleontologist David Martill, who published several of the papers highlighted as being exploitative, tells Science. Martill, who published a 2018 essay criticizing laws meant to protect fossils from international extraction, argues that focusing on his work and that of his German coauthors but not on papers from the US is unfair, saying that “[w]ithout a doubt, they cherry-picked them.”

See “Ancient DNA Boom Underlines a Need for Ethical Frameworks

Specifically, the new study points out a 2020 paper that Martill coauthored in Cretaceous Research that announced a newly discovered dinosaur dubbed Ubiraja jubatus, the first feathered dinosaur discovered in South America. The study examined one key fossil taken from Brazil but didn’t include any Brazilian authors. After the study, the fossil was relocated to a museum in Germany. After fierce backlash on social media, the study was withdrawn by the journal.

The Scientist spoke with Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist from the Federal University of Piauí in Brazil who led the new study, about what he sees as missteps in his field, and how researchers can move forward in a way that prioritizes international equity.

The Scientist: Where did the idea for this investigation into how fossils originating from Mexico and Brazil are handled by other countries come from?

Juan Carlos Cisneros: The idea came from two papers. One appeared in December 2020 and described a dinosaur from Brazil called Ubiraja jubatus that started a lot of [criticism]. The paper became retracted by the journal. The problem with this specific fossil was there was no proof that it left the country legally, among other things. For example, there were no local authors. It was an important discovery because it was the first time that someone found a dinosaur with feathers in South America. It was easy to find red flags in that paper.

Only three months later came another paper with a fossil shark from Mexico, and again there were no local research institutions involved. Also, in the paper they mentioned the fossil was purchased. In Mexico, the law very explicitly forbids selling and buying fossils. It’s very similar to what we have in Brazil and nearly all of Latin America.

We’re supposed to reconstruct the past, not lie about the past.

So we have these two cases. One of the authors was involved in both papers. That was, how you say in Brazil, the strawberry on top of the cake. . . . It shows how some institutions and researchers were systematically doing these things in more than one place. I began to look for other cases, and then I called colleagues in Mexico and asked them, “Are you interested in targeting this whole thing? We have similar problems in Brazil and I see you are having very much the same issues in Mexico.” We put together a big team from both countries and other people in Europe that were already addressing colonial science issues.

TS: You talk about extractive practices in which researchers don’t have access to fossils found in their own home countries because they’re taken and kept in private collections elsewhere, or in which regulations in lower-income countries are ignored. As a researcher, what’s your personal experience with these issues?

JCC: This is nothing new for us here. We have been hearing about these cases happening all the time, and of course we were already aware of other papers by the same research groups. They were very clearly ignoring our regulations. . . . I work in Brazil and I was aware of several cases in Brazil, but I wasn’t aware how big it was until we looked at the data. . . . Also, we always talk about these things internally, but we do not really talk about this much with the international community because that means messing with powerful people—powerful researchers, powerful institutions—that can retaliate against us. By doing this, we are risking our careers, basically, because these people are reviewers for the research we produce. They have resources we need to access to do our own studies. They could retaliate easily, and that’s the main reason why we have never been so open about these things with the international community.

Local researchers at a Cretaceous fossil site in Nova Olinda, Ceará, Brazil
RENAN BANTIM

This is a calculated risk, but . . . after the [Ubiraja jubatus], it was very obvious that something needed to happen. When we saw this particular paper was withdrawn, that was like seeing a light at the end of the tunnel: that something can actually happen if we push hard. If we fight, we can produce good results at the end. But we need to fight.

TS: You talk about a few issues in your paper: local laws and regulations being ignored or broken, foreign researchers downplaying the contributions of local researchers, and the theft or otherwise taking of fossils, among others. How interconnected are all of these?

JCC: I think it’s all part of one big issue, which is seeing our countries as just providers of data and important specimens. Which is what we call colonialism in the first place: to extract resources from another land. We are still seen as colonies, and that’s why some of these researchers are using all these different strategies to acquire these resources from us.

It’s a very old mentality. We are in the 21st century—we shouldn’t be discussing this, but apparently some people don’t evolve.

TS: I was taken aback by figures four and five in your paper, which show your findings on how few papers mention acquiring permits or include local researchers regarding fossils from Mexico and Brazil, respectively. Were you surprised at all when you saw data showing just how rampant these problems were?

JCC: I didn’t expect that this was so big because I work with vertebrates. I knew it was big in this particular area, but when we started to look at invertebrates, it was too big and we didn’t even finish it.

The other surprise is how, in some papers, the authors admit not following the local rules. At least in the literature published more than ten years ago, some authors were still admitting that they were purchasing fossils. Just the fact that [they were] admitting that these irregularities happened—to put it in the papers—that really made me feel bad.

See “Steps to End ‘Colonial Science’ Slowly Take Shape

These people are saying these things because they do not expect any punishment, they do not expect any consequence. [Now] they are masking irregularities, [not acquiring] permits—they don’t even mention the rules. They try to mask it, but they don’t do it that well.

The shark from Mexico: they mention in the paper that it was purchased, which is illegal in Mexico, and then a week later they published an erratum deleting that sentence. They then said it was going to be put on exhibit in a museum yet to be built. It’s a very clumsy way to explain what you are doing with important heritage from another country.

You don’t go into somebody else’s house and steal things because the window was open.

TS: Your paper debunks a number of the common arguments that researchers will use to justify acquiring and transporting fossils away from their original locations, and then you explain how failing to interact with the local scientific community actually harms the quality of research being conducted. Can you talk more about that?

JCC: The best [people] to know the local rocks are the local geologists. . . . If you were looking with the local geologists and finding your own fossils instead of buying them from a fossil dealer, you would have all this data, all this information that is very precious for us. Because otherwise, fossils become just curiosities; they lose half their information. You need the local context.

We are talking about an area in Brazil that is not so small at all. It includes three states in Brazil; it’s an area more or less the size of Nicaragua. When you acquire a fossil on the illicit market, you don’t know where it was found. That also harms our studies. We don’t know which animal inhabited where or which plant was found where. The other problem is that sometimes [dealers] modify fossils to look prettier. We’re supposed to reconstruct the past, not lie about the past.

TS: Toward the end of your paper, you cite some signs of progress and list recommendations to researchers, governments, and journals. What, in your mind, would be a good, tangible step toward solving these issues?

JCC: Traditionally, paleontology has been portrayed Indiana Jones style, where you go to an exotic place, you don’t ask for a permit from the local government to do what you want to do, and you take something valuable from the natives.

I think that it’s a tradition and [there’s] the perception that that is the way to do things. Sometimes, the younger paleontologists are committing small unethical practices without being aware of them because they think it has always been done this way. . . . Hopefully we are raising enough attention to this, and the younger people will become more sensitive to these issues.

The fossil spider Cretapalpus vittari, recently repatriated to Brazil after being illicitly exported to the US
RENAN BANTIM

TS: So is it a matter of training new researchers?

JCC: I think [training] is part of it. I think paleontology and natural science [education] should include history of science and other courses so people understand what is the correct thing to do. Because they really don’t know or they don’t have access to that information. . . . And I think funders of research should be aware of these [issues] and make a requirement that any research that is going to happen in another country should build equitable partnerships with local institutions. . . . Some researchers use a fallacy that local laws are complicated, but if you work with the local researchers, they are the ones that want to guide them through local laws. If you are a researcher, you don’t need to learn all the laws in the world.

TS: What has the response to this paper been like? Has it been criticized or praised at all?

JCC: Both. We were expecting both things. We mention a lot of people because we are covering a time frame from the last 30 years. Some of [the people] have already criticized that we are being too harsh against institutions in Europe, especially in Germany, and too kind with institutions in the US. It’s not a good way to defend yourself when you say “other institutions have been as bad as mine.” It’s a fallacy to say, “I’m wrong but they are also wrong so I’m less wrong.”

What we found in our study is that many of the fossils that have been published in the last 30 years have come from European researchers. Studies on Brazilian fossils in the US are older than that. That’s why we are being “kind,” because they are older and we limited our timeframe to the last three decades.

Sometimes we hear from the same groups that everything is actually Mexico and Brazil’s fault because we do not enforce the laws. You don’t go into somebody else’s house and steal things because the window was open.

I hear that paleontology has always been this way; it’s not going to change. But we must start somewhere.

TS: Is there anything else you want to make sure we talk about?

JCC: We are not being nationalistic. We want to work with international partners because that’s how you do science. Science is made from collaboration regardless of where the other partner is. But it must be an equitable partnership that respects our laws.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity.