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.”