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Could a Renewed Push for Access to Fossil Data Finally Topple Paleoanthropology’s Culture of Secrecy?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Sharing of fossil casts at anthropology conference

Anthropologists examine casts of human fossils from around the world at the 2012 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Portland, Ore. Image: Kate Wong

In a hotel ballroom in Portland, Or., this past April, the tables were laid not with silverware and china, but replicas of some of the most important human fossils in the world. Seasoned paleoanthropologists and graduate students alike milled among them, pausing to examine a cutmarked Neandertal skull from Croatia, the bizarre foot bones of nearly two-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba from South Africa, a rarely seen pinky finger bone from Siberia whose DNA hints at a previously unknown lineage of humans who were contemporaries of  our own Homo sapiens ancestors. Although perhaps a curious sight to a casual passer-by, the gathering shouldn’t have been an especially momentous occasion. The attendees were simply scientists attending a professional meeting and sharing data with their peers. This is how science is supposed to work. And yet this 1.5-hour open lab night was arguably the most important event of the entire three-day conference.

Human origins researchers commonly complain about a lack of access to certain fossil specimens for study—a state of affairs that has fueled the discipline’s cloak-and-dagger reputation and hindered scientific progress. The fossil-sharing event at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, along with other recent developments—including a planned shift in Ethiopia’s policies governing access to human fossils–hints that paleoanthropology may finally be evolving.

At the anthropology meeting in Portland, I sat down with John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, who chaired the open lab session, to learn more about how it came to be. Hawks explained that the impetus came in 2011, when Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, donated casts of the recently discovered remains of A. sediba to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The move inspired the association’s vice president and program committee chair, Karen Rosenberg of the University of Delaware, to propose inviting other researchers and curators to bring casts of other fossil hominins (humans and their extinct relatives) to the meeting and make an event of it. Rosenberg then asked Hawks to organize the event, which became the plenary session of the meeting.

Hawks, who has long advocated for open access in paleoanthropology, was happy to oblige. “When I was a graduate student,” he recalls, “I accepted that there were [questions] I just couldn’t investigate” because certain fossils were unavailable for study. He decided to focus on Neandertals, because he could get access to their remains, and he pursued genetics, because it is more open than paleoanthropology.

Fossils may be kept under wraps for various reasons. The researchers who put in the hard work to find the remains typically want first dibs on publishing on them. If they share the fossils with outsiders, so the thinking goes, rivals could beat them to press and steal their thunder. Governments, too, may have an interest in restricting access to fossils found on their country’s turf. Distributing physical replicas or digital data from computed tomographic scans could, in theory, discourage international scholars from bringing their research funding into the country of origin to study the original fossils.

And yet a recent example suggests that there are ways around these issues, and that open access policies might have effects that are quite the opposite of those that many have feared. Soon after Berger found A. sediba in 2008,  he decided that he wanted to make the study of the remains an open access project. To date he has sent dozens of sets of casts of the remains—including bones his own team has yet to publish on–to institutions around the world in hopes of generating interest in the fossils and attracting researchers to come to Johannesburg to see the originals. Every scientist who has asked to see the remains has been granted access.

The strategy has paid off. Researchers have flocked to South Africa in droves to check out the remains, Berger’s research team has grown to include more than 80 members, and within just a few years of getting the bones out of the ground the team has already published a raft of high-profile scientific papers, with more in the pipeline.

“What [Berger] has shown in South Africa is that when you work with the government to open access to things, that has huge benefits for the country,” Hawks observes. “The amount of attention South Africa has gotten for sediba is more than any other country got since Lucy,” he says, referring to the iconic 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis that Donald Johanson of Arizona State University discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. “Such positive attention is hard to come by.”

From the sounds of things, Ethiopia would like to bask in that spotlight once again. In recent years scientists have expressed considerable frustration about the difficulty of getting access to the country’s rich collection of human fossils. That situation is apparently changing. According to Johanson, this past January Yonas Desta, director general of the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Ethiopia, convened a meeting in Addis Ababa during which he announced that the rules and regulations for research in Ethiopia are currently being rewritten with aim of attracting more scholars to Ethiopia to study the fossils. (Full disclosure: I co-wrote a book with Johanson called Lucy’s Legacy.) To encourage this, Ethiopia is developing a casting program to create replicas of published material to distribute to researchers around the world.

When I emailed Desta to ask him about the policy change, he replied that he hopes it “will provide more and equitable access to fossils and will make Ethiopia a center of excellence.” The new regulation is still being finalized, he noted, and will be approved in a couple of months.

“I’m encouraged that there appears to be a return to a more open-door policy in sharing fossils than there has been for some time,” says Johanson of these recent events in paleoanthropology.  “Access to fossils is absolutely critical and essential to anyone doing primary research, and the availability of casts is often extremely important for people planning a research trip to at least make preliminary observations and develop a strategy for work on original fossils.”

And by facilitating better project planning, access to casts and digital data would also cut down on unnecessary handling of the fragile remains. Tracy Kivell of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, who is involved in an initiative to make 3D surface models of a collection of fossils from the South African site of Kromdraai available to scientists, notes that the teeth of the famous Taung child, a 2.6-million- to 2.8-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus fossil from South Africa, are visibly shorter than they used to be, because of damage from the calipers generations of paleoanthopologists have used to measure them. Another A. africanus specimen, dubbed Mrs. Ples, has a substantial dent in her skull from repeated measurements with calipers. With 3D surface models of fossils, scientists can take their measurements virtually, without laying a finger on the fossils themselves.

Kivell thinks concerns about sharing fossil data are misplaced. “You don’t have to worry about getting scooped,” she says, explaining that a lot of the science of interpreting fossils lies in comparing them with other fossils, which is time-consuming work. “Good science in paleoanthropology is highly comparative, highly descriptive and cannot be done fast,” Hawks agrees. “If it’s not done with extensive comparison and careful description, it’s not going to be good.”

Hawks observes that genetics had the same problem paleoanthropology has with making data accessible. But eventually the geneticists “got over it as a culture.” Indeed, it has become standard practice among geneticists to upload new sequence data to a public database before submitting a paper on the findings to a journal for publication. “I really think most people want to see things more open than they are,” Hawks says. “[Paleoanthropology] should be a real science just like genetics is a real science.”

 

About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. fyngyrz 12:20 pm 05/8/2012

    You know what drives me batty? I live near Ft. Peck Lake in Montana. The law says that we (the “common citizen”) cannot pick up and/or collect vertebrate fossils. Quite aside from the very real dangers of trying to teach the morons in the employ of the government the difference between a vertebrate fossil and an invertebrate so they don’t arrest you for picking up a clam fossil, every year, I watch vertebrate fossils get exposed by wave action, succumb to continued erosion, fall into the lake, and get beaten to shreds along the shore, lost to everyone. Those laws are some of the worst on the books. Rather than sit for a while in some private collector’s case, these specimens are lost forever — because scientists are greedy and feel entitled, and accordingly convinced legislators that public access to these treasures was entirely a bad thing. Just goes to show you that critical thinking ability isn’t highly developed in paleontology and similar.

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  2. 2. ErnestPayne 4:52 pm 05/8/2012

    Congratulations to all involved in studying the past and looking forward.

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  3. 3. scientific earthling 2:01 am 05/9/2012

    fyngyrz: You are not fighting a futile battle against ignorant bureaucrats, the conniving god people are behind all this. They want all fossils that indicate the world is over 6k years old to be destroyed. They do this here in Australia too.

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  4. 4. Bill_Crofut 10:39 am 05/9/2012

    scientific earthling,

    As a Traditional Roman Catholic and militant young-Earth Biblical creationist, your assessment of the fossil accessibility problem is of interest. Please comment on the following:

    Geophysicist A. Hayatsu provided what has all the earmarks of questionable practice in age dating: “In conventional interpretation of K-Ar [potassium-argon] age data, it is common to discard ages which are substantially too high or too low compared with the rest of the group or with other available data such as the geological time scale. The discrepancies between the rejected and the accepted are arbitrarily attributed to excess or loss of argon” (1979. K-Ar Isochron Age of the North Mountain Basalt, Nova Scotia. CANADIAN JOURNAL OF EARTH SCIENCES, April, p. 974).

    Prof. Gunther Faure reinforced my position in his textbook: “I have attempted to present the principles of isotope geology by emphasizing the derivation of mathematical equations that are used in the interpretation of isotopic data. In many instances, the geological significance of the conclusions derived from isotopic studies depends on the assumptions that were made in the calculations. I believe that students will better appreciate the limitations of the results of such calculations when they can follow the derivation of the relevant equations step by step and observe how various assumptions enter into the process. Isotope geology has no place for handy formulas into which one substitutes data to obtain the magic answer.”
    (1986. Principles of Isotope Geology, Second Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. viii).

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  5. 5. julianpenrod 12:39 am 05/10/2012

    scientific earthling displays the same telling compulsion of all the God haters, the need to write the name of the Almighty with a lower case “g”. There is no reason to do this. God is a name and, therefore, should be capitalized. But so many who deny God’s presence in themselves know there is a God, but they resent the fact they cannot order Him around and have to act nobly and ethically even to have an opportunity to see His actions. They write God’s name perverted as a sign of their uncontrolled spite.
    There is another interpretation for the situation at Peck Lake. The government knows “evolution” is a fraud, that the remains claimed to show the change in species are really all resin casts to con the dull-witted and gullible. So the oldest fossils at the lake will be the same as modern day ones! And that is what they don’t want to come out! That’s why they make such stringent stipulations about gathering them! They don’t want it to become known that “evolution” is a lie!

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  6. 6. Eric Zhang 10:46 am 05/10/2012

    It is understandable that scientists are greedy and feel entitled,for the change that they can become world famous is always minimal.But they have ignored the fact that sometimes coorperation and sharing are more conducive for academics.

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  7. 7. SpoonmanWoS 2:27 pm 05/10/2012

    julianpenrod displays the same telling compulsion of all the god people; the need to suggest that the word “god” belongs to them because they decided to call their god “God”. Such creative thinking! Their monotheistic-centric view also completely ignores the fact that of the 14,000 gods created by man, theirs is just the latest and most annoying. It’s why when you tell one of them you’re an atheist they immediately respond “you don’t believe in God?” “Um, no…I don’t believe in godS. With an “s”. I have no more against your god than I do Zeus (capitalized) or Hermes (also capitalized).”

    But, since this is all these poor people have, they hold on to such silliness because they don’t want to believe that their god, just like all of the others THEY don’t believe in either, is a lie.

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  8. 8. evodevo 2:03 pm 05/13/2012

    Oh, no, the invasion of the creationist trolls. Try to stay on topic, will ya?

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  9. 9. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:38 am 05/14/2012

    #9
    Actually, first troll here was anti-Christian at #3. Don’t confuse cause and effect, this is important in biology.

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  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:46 am 05/14/2012

    Any middling paleontologist which laid his/her hands on a rare specimen can publish a series of papers and become a figure in the field. The actual limiting step of getting specimens is practically not rewarded. As long as this flaw is not sorted, paleontology will remain a flawed discipline full of dagger-and-cloak mentality, personal fights etc.

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  11. 11. David Marjanović 6:30 pm 05/14/2012

    Quite aside from the very real dangers of trying to teach the morons in the employ of the government the difference between a vertebrate fossil and an invertebrate so they don’t arrest you for picking up a clam fossil, every year, I watch vertebrate fossils get exposed by wave action, succumb to continued erosion, fall into the lake, and get beaten to shreds along the shore, lost to everyone. Those laws are some of the worst on the books.

    There are three problems:

    1) As you say: if nobody collects the fossils, erosion destroys them.
    2) There are commercial collectors who grab scientifically important stuff, don’t record the geological context, often prettify it in ways that destroy even more information, and then sell it off to who knows where. What do you mean by “sit for a while in some private collector’s case”? They usually stay in private property for generations till the heirs lose them or they fall apart due to bad storage conditions, and all this while scientists usually have no access – and when one or two scientists get access because they manage to befriend the owners, they still can’t publish on the specimens, because they’re not in a public collection, so there’s no guarantee of access. And, again, the geological context is usually lost and the anatomy may be “enhanced”.
    3) There’s not enough funding for enough scientific expeditions to collect all the interesting fossils before erosion destroys them.

    The laws you mention try to address 2), but fail to address 3) and therefore, as you observe, fail to address 1).

    I think the solution is to address 3).

    Geophysicist A. Hayatsu provided what has all the earmarks of questionable practice in age dating:

    Why do you act as if only two papers had ever been published on radiometric dating, and the last was almost 30 years ago?

    In all seriousness, read the Wikipedia article on radiometric dating, and then read the papers it links to. But first read this.

    BTW, I know there are such people in the US, but I don’t understand why a Catholic would be a YEC when the Pope is an Old Earth theistic evolutionist.

    God is a name

    Well, no, but it’s used as such in English. The name you’re thinking of is Yahwe.

    so many who deny God’s presence in themselves know there is a God

    Show me.

    The government knows “evolution” is a fraud

    Show me both of those claims… no, actually, it’s enough if you show me that just one of these two claims is true.

    the 14,000 gods created by man

    More like 330 million.

    Any middling paleontologist which laid his/her hands on a rare specimen can publish a series of papers and become a figure in the field. The actual limiting step of getting specimens is practically not rewarded.

    You just contradicted yourself.

    a flawed discipline full of dagger-and-cloak mentality, personal fights etc.

    “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.” Paleanthropology may be like that, but the rest of vertebrate paleontology has had Aëtogate and what else? Oh, do you mean John Bolt sitting on Doleserpeton for 40 years and not letting anyone see it? That’s over, the complete description was published in 2010, with Bolt as the second and his PhD student as the first author.

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  12. 12. Bill_Crofut 10:20 am 06/27/2012

    David Marjanović,

    Please excuse my delay in responding.

    Re: “Why do you act as if only two papers had ever been published on radiometric dating, and the last was almost 30 years ago? In all seriousness, read the Wikipedia article on radiometric dating, and then read the papers it links to. But first read this”

    There is nothing in my comment indicating those are the only two documents published on the subject. The second “paper” quoted is a textbook. Unless my perception is incorrect, Dr. Hayatsu has indicated fraud is part of the dating procedure. How is wading through a plethora of references from Wikipedia going to change that?

    Re: “BTW, I know there are such people in the US, but I don’t understand why a Catholic would be a YEC when the Pope is an Old Earth theistic evolutionist.”

    My status was described as Traditional Roman Catholic. Pope Benedict XVI is not a traditionalist.

    Link to this

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