Palaeontology Has a Colonialism Problem

A fish fossil from the Araripe basin on display in the Santana do Cariri Museum, Brazil. Photo: Aline M. Ghilardi

  • A new study has shown that colonial history and socioeconomic factors affect the way researchers study palaeontological samples and interpret the data.
  • Its conclusions provide insights into how ‘non-scientific’ forces can shape scientific knowledge, despite the latter’s frequent appeals to objectivity.
  • The study focuses on more privileged researchers who ‘parachute’ into less-fortunate countries to study the latter’s fossil wealth and leave without engaging local researchers.

Hyderabad: In 2020, a team of palaeontologists led by Eberhard Frey, from the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, described a fossil of a hitherto unidentified dinosaur. They called it Ubirajara jubatus.

The fossil indicated that the dinosaur’s body had structures that could have evolved into modern-day feathers. The discovery was the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

That’s not all the fossil is famous for.

After the researchers published their findings, palaeontologists in Brazil – where the specimen was originally found – raised questions about how the fossil had landed up in Germany. The Brazilians alleged that the fossil may have been exported illegally. In a December 2020 article, Brazilian palaeontologist Alexander Kellner says that under Brazilian law, “there is no legal exportation of fossils. Period.”

Frey and his colleagues denied any illegality in the fossil’s export of the fossil – but Frey also said their permit was for a shipment of unspecified fossil samples. The same article also quoted Frey: “It arrived legally, but we can’t prove it properly.”

The paper by Frey and colleagues, published in the journal Cretaceous Research in 2020, has since been withdrawn.

The U. jubatus fossil scandal raised fundamental questions about the ethics of scientists from the ‘global north’ studying fossils discovered in the ‘global south’ by exporting them and without involving local researchers.

A new study by an all-women team from Germany, the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India has shown that colonial history and socioeconomic factors affect the way researchers study palaeontological samples and interpret the data.

Their conclusions provide insights into how ‘non-scientific’ forces can shape scientific knowledge, despite the latter’s frequent appeals to objectivity.

The study, led by PhD student Nussaïbah B. Raja at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg and Emma Dunne at the University of Birmingham, also offers suggestions on how palaeontologists can come together to mitigate these biases and pursue palaeontology in decolonised fashion.

Colonialism continues

According to the study, the natural sciences benefited from European colonialism in the 19th century. When researchers from colonial countries encountered botanical, zoological and palaeontogical specimens in colonised countries, they shipped them back to the “imperial capitals” (such as London and Paris) – where museums were springing up to preserve and house them.

As a result, palaeontology blossomed in these places. Charles Darwin collected various fossil samples during his famous HMS Beagle expedition from Argentina and Uruguay, shipped them to London, where the British palaeontologist Richard Owen studied them from 1837 to 1845 and described 11 taxa1.

Researchers are still studying many specimens acquired through colonial networks. For example, plankton samples collected on the HMS Challenger expedition in the 19th century led to a paper by British authors in 2020.

The current study’s hook into such practices is what it calls “parachute science”: when more privileged researchers, typically from more ‘powerful’ countries, ‘parachute’ into less-fortunate countries to study the latter’s fossil wealth and leave without engaging local researchers on their studies on the same topics.

In some instances, ‘parachuting’ scientists have also been known to violate local laws and/or devalue the opinions of local researchers, leading to a trust deficit between groups of scientists belonging to the same community and ultimately compromises opportunities for collaboration.

Overall, such enterprises extend colonialist actions and attitudes into science.

Some have contended that it shouldn’t matter who studies a specimen – locals or foreigners (relative to the location of the specimen). But Raja, the study’s lead author, told The Wire Science that the question is not “why should they” but “why should they not”.

“Local researchers have better information about the site, and if foreign researchers are not making use of this expertise, then they are not doing the best science that they could,” she said.

Such colonial scientific practices, Raja continued, spawn a power imbalance. More privileged researchers have more resources to work on the samples they’ve obtained, and subsequently publish papers of higher quality and value than those prepared by their less-privileged counterparts.

“It is in their backyard, why shouldn’t they work on it?” said Raja.

Devapriya Chattopadhyay, a palaeontologist at the Department of Earth and Climate Science at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, and another author of the Raja et al. study, also said India is geologically unique. It began as a landmass attached to Antarctica before drifting up to cross the equator and finally slam into Asia.

This northward journey offers palaeontologists like Chattopadhyay a unique opportunity to study how the movement of a landmass over time and through various environmental circumstances can affect its biodiversity.

But studying these changes requires palaeontologists to be able to access fossil records. And this is where India’s colonial history complicates matters.

Chattopadhyay told The Wire Science that most of the fossils collected in the two centuries of colonial rule are now housed in primarily Europe and the US. “Funding agencies rarely fund research where the material is outside the country, and we need to go there physically to continue our research,” she said.

Repatriating these fossils is always an option – on paper. Thanks to the lack of a global consensus or any binding rules, researchers in foreign countries rarely part with fossil specimens already on their soil, she added.

Chattopadhyay also highlighted another way in which India’s colonial history hinders present-day palaeontology research in the country: “The time during which the western world was creating large repositories and museums to host fossil samples, India was undergoing a major economic oppression. As a result, museums were never a priority.”

As a result, researchers like Chattopadhyay are practically forced to retrace 200 years of missed opportunities before they can produce work of the same quality as that produced by researchers in the US and Europe.

Also read: New Yorker’s Dino Fossils Profile Features Pitfalls of ‘Science as Performance’

Research methods

A graphical abstract of the study. Source: Emma Dunne

Raja and her colleagues obtained their primary data from the paleobiology database (PBDB), a volunteer-driven repository of paleobiological research. It contains more than 50,000 paleobiology research papers and various details of the authors, the fossil records they studied, etc.

The authors chose PBDB because of its wide use by the palaeontologists’ community. At the same time, they recognised that since most researchers in the “PBDB community” hail from the US or Europe, the database could be biased towards studies from these countries, and “certainly towards the English language”.

They downloaded papers published between 1990 and 2020 from PBDB and mined their text for the following details: year of publication, authors’ countries of affiliation, countries from which fossil materials were obtained (“research destination”), and the number of publications in PBDB for each country (to quantify the “research output” from every country). In the end, the researchers had some 26,000 papers to work with.

Advait Jukar, a palaeontologist at the Yale University and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, commended the study for being comprehensive, but warned that PBDB is by no means complete. For example, Jukar said, the “fossil record of whales is pretty well represented in the database, but that is not the case with all mammals”.

But despite its limitations, the database has sufficient data to answer the questions the researchers asked, Jukar added.

“An interesting follow-up would be a comparison of a subset of their data with data from other compilations, such as the [New and Old Worlds Fossil Mammal Database] Database,” he said. “The latter database tends to have a more complete record of mammals from Africa and Asia.”

Raja & co. also collected some socioeconomic and political data of the countries to which the papers’ authors belonged, including the GDP, the Human Development Index (HDI), the English proficiency index and the Global Peace Index (GPI).

The team also classified the country based on its colonial legacy. For this, team members used a binary scoring technique: simply, a country that participated in and benefited from colonial activities scored 1 and other countries scored 0.

This seems very subjective. For example, couldn’t one say the railway network the British set up in India benefited India as well? It “was in their favour at the time, to make sure they could transport things faster,” Raja said. “With this train of thought, you could argue that many colonies benefited. But there was also a drain of resources at the time. And many Indian fossils remain in museums abroad.”

The team’s paper also used the following criteria to assign a score of 1 if a country “practised or was involved in”:

“… setting up colonies beyond their territories; exploitative colonialism – occupation of a country or region to exploit its population as labour and/or its natural resources as raw material; settler colonialism – occupation with the aim of replacing the original population of the occupied territory; internal colonialism – the exploitation of minority groups within a wider society …; surrogate colonialism – supporting the settlement of a non-native group on territory occupied by an indigenous population; and colonial complicity – benefiting from colonisation by other countries without actively engaging in the colonialism process”.

Ultimately, armed with this data, the team mapped the relationship between authors and their research destinations. They created a global country network showing countries that were popular research destinations for authors from various countries. They also computed a parachute index: the ratio of the number of publications based at a research destination by foreign authors to those by local authors.

Also read: The Reuters ‘Hot List’ of ‘Top Climate Scientists’ Has a Big Problem

The ‘global north’ dominates

Based on their analyses, the team found that about 97% of the data in their sample came from researchers based in high- or upper-middle–income countries. This number, according to Raja, was “astonishing”. “I expected the number to be somewhere around 70%, but never thought that it would be 97%,” she said.

According to the analysis, while researchers in the US have conducted fairly equal amounts of domestic (i.e. within the US) and non-domestic research, researchers in Germany, the UK and France conducted more non-domestic than domestic research. And among their non-domestic research studies, almost half had no local collaborators.

On the other hand, palaeontology in China, Argentina and Japan was found to thrive on domestic research, more so in the last three decades. Of these countries, Chinese researchers were found to have the highest research output, and the study attributes this to “rapid geological surveying and mapping initiated in the 1950s” and laws that require fossils uncovered in China to stay within the country.

The study paper also says that the presence of national palaeontological societies, university programs in palaeontology and national repositories for curating and storing fossil specimens in Brazil and Japan could be helping researchers in these countries.

At the same time, the paper also says palaeontology in both India and Brazil – two “regional hubs of paleontological knowledge” – doesn’t appear to have progressed much due to lack of funds and ongoing political crises, respectively.

Finally, based on the parachute index, the team wrote that most countries that are victims of parachute science are located in the ‘global south’. For example, one-fourth of all paleontological research in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria was conducted by researchers from France; 17% of papers based on Tanzanian fossils were conducted by German researchers; and a tenth of papers based on South African and Egyptian fossils were conducted by British researchers.

Raja & co. also wrote in their paper that Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, Morocco, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, owing to their popularity as research destinations among foreign palaeontologists, were the greatest victims of ‘parachute science’.

In Myanmar and the Dominican Republic, the paper considered the easy availability of amber – fossilised tree resin with flora and fauna trapped inside – to be one reason. But the issue is not so simple.

“Burmese amber [bearing] inclusions ranging from insects to whole pterosaurs 2 and fledgling dinosaurs/extinct birds has, in many instances, been trafficked under questionable circumstances to many developed nations, where they are currently being studied,” Arindam Roy, a palaeontologist and a Hong Kong PhD Fellow at the University of Hong Kong, said.

He added that the illegal acquisition and sale of Burmese amber has been enabled by shifting the control of mining operations between “the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Army during skirmishes”, and is fueling a humanitarian crisis in North Myanmar, where Burmese amber is found.

International societies like the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the US and the Paleontological Association in the UK have “condemned” studies based on illegally procured amber and that publications that can’t prove that their obtained their amber through legal means could face editorial rejection by journals in future, according to Roy.

The research output imbalance

A fossil of a snail in Kutch, Gujarat. Photo: Devapriya Chattopadhyay

The study also examined the relationship between a country’s research output and measures of its socioeconomic and political status. The team observed that the HDI, also directly linked to the GDP and the GPI of a country, is positively correlated with the research output. That is, the higher the HDI (and the GDP and the GPI) of a country, the higher its paleontological research output.

Raja & co. also reported a significant bias in the paleontological literature towards the English language. Around 92% of published papers that the team analysed were written in English; Chinese, German, French and Spanish accounted for most of the remaining 8%. According to the paper, this disadvantages palaeontologists who aren’t fluent in English.

According to the team, there is a tendency to not include papers in languages other than English in large meta-analyses3, which in turn could bias their conclusions. Instead, they suggest palaeontologists could actively seek studies in languages other than English when they’re searching the literature and incorporate them in their analyses by collaborating with native speakers of these languages.

In fact, in their paper, the team has also highlighted how those responsible can fix the problems they have uncovered.

Foremost, they wrote that collaborations should be based on trust and respect between researchers in the global north and local researchers at the research destinations. These collaborations, the authors said, will help more-privileged researchers understand the cultural landscapes of their research sites. Local researchers can also help “navigate bureaucratic requirements” and share their expertise.

Second, they suggest decolonising funding schemes by having foreign researchers take into account the needs of local researchers and for both groups to apply for funds and grants together.

Third, they emphasise the importance of repatriating fossils to the countries of origin and building local repositories there. Then again, Roy said that “repatriation of fossils to native museums is now becoming standard practice.”

He invoked the example of Mark Norell, curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Philip J. Currie, his counterpart at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Canada, who “spearheaded the return of many Mongolian dinosaur specimens to local museum authorities.”

Finally, the authors wrote on the need to decolonise the scientific publishing industry. Currently, exorbitant fees to publish in open-access journals keep out scientists, or their institutions, that can’t afford them – and exorbitant paywalls to access published articles keep anyone who can’t cough up these amounts away from the scientific literature.

A way forward

Both Raja and Chattopadhyay are interested in carrying their work forward. Chattopadhyay said the study’s authors are sharing their findings through talks at various international fora, while Raja is also looking at how scientific diplomacy and ethical legal frameworks can lead to more equitable palaeontology research.

Also according to Chattopadhyay, K. VijayRaghavan, India’s principal scientific advisor, and the Prime Minister’s Office have expressed interest in setting up a central repository of fossil specimens, called The Indian Museum of Earth, or TIME.

Jukar is also involved in this project. He said that the project’s “goals are to deal with many of the problems addressed in the paper, such as a lack of a central repository, lack of lab facilities, and a home for private and orphaned collections from various universities in India.”

Roy also said the study will also “encourage solution-driven future discussions” within the global palaeontology community. “As an early career researcher who has struggled a lot with colonial perceptions in science, I would like to convey my gratitude for highlighting such an important issue.”

Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans science writer, communicator and journalist. They currently work with the feminist multimedia science collective, and tweet at @queersprings.

  1. Populations of organisms that share some characteristics and thus belong to the same taxon

  2. Flying reptiles

  3. Studies of studies, like this one

Scroll To Top