Ancient Human Fossils Sent to Space [Inside Story]

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Last week, on a beautiful Friday morning, a Virgin Galactic spaceship flew 88 kilometers above Earth to the edge of space. Two Virgin Galactic pilots, an instructor, and three passengers were on board, as well as the remains of two ancient human relatives who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago in southern Africa.

Everyone on board the VSS Unity, including the remaining hominins, arrived safely an hour after takeoff. However, the voyage of the fossils has garnered harsh criticism from archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists, and other experts. They claim it was an unethical PR gimmick that endangered priceless hominin fossils, raising concerns about cultural heritage protection in South Africa as a government agency signed off on the mission.

“To treat ancestral remains in such a callous, unethical way — to blast them into space just because you can — there’s no scientific merit in this,” says Robyn Pickering, a geologist at South Africa’s University of Cape Town.

Precious bones

Other fossils, such as dinosaur bones, have been carried into space on various missions since the 1980s, but they are the first ancient-hominin remnants to leave the planet. They belonged to Australopithecus sediba, who lived around 2 million years ago1, and Homo naledi, who lived around 250,000 years ago. Teams led by Lee Berger, a palaeoanthropologist now at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC, discovered both species near Johannesburg, South Africa.

Berger received an export licence from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) in Cape Town in July to carry an A. sediba shoulder bone and an H. naledi finger bone to New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic’s spaceport is based, and aboard the company’s craft. Tim Nash, a South African businessman who was a passenger on the aircraft, carried the fossils with him.

Berger’s proposal stated that scientific investigations on the fossils may be done, but that this was not the primary goal of the request. “Major media partners will assist in using this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring awareness to science, exploration, human origins, and South Africa, as well as its role in understanding Humankind’s shared African ancestry,” the statement stated.

Pickering, a member of the team that estimated the age of A. sediba1, believes that such explanations do not outweigh the risks of spaceflight, particularly the chance of losing or destroying the remains. The shoulder bone is extremely noteworthy because it was the first A. sediba fossil identified and serves as the species’ reference, or type specimen.

Sending African fossils to space, according to Yonatan Sahle, an archaeologist at the University of Cape Town, reminds him of colonial and neocolonial research practices in which white, largely European and American researchers twisted African institutions to their will. “As someone who is African and based in an African institution, this is basically a perpetuation of past, very ugly aspects of palaeoanthropological research.”

The European Society for the Study of Human Evolution issued a statement on September 13 opposing the mission, saying, “We do not see the scientific merit of this project and question the ethics of potentially damaging these unique materials.” We encourage prudent stewardship and safeguarding of these valuable research riches.” If you want you can also read – How Mars Mapping Help Us? Could Reveal Resources for Human Settlement

‘Promotional benefit’

In response to the mission’s critics, SAHRA official Ben Mwasinga stated in a media statement that the agency was “satisfied that the promotional benefit derived was appropriately weighted against the inherent risk of such travel.”

Bernhard Zipfel, palaeoanthropologist and curator of collections at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said in a press release that the fossils were chosen for the mission partly because they had been extensively documented in 3D scans, casts, and photographs. (Zipfel did not respond to a request for comment from Nature.)

If it’s OK to put fossils at risk because they’re well documented, that might set a hazardous precedent, says Rachel King, an archaeologist at University College London who researches cultural-heritage regulations in southern Africa. “Could we bulldoze one of South Africa’s World Heritage Sites and build a shopping mall?” she wonders.

South Africa has long been regarded as a pioneer among African countries in terms of cultural heritage protection, and King was taken aback when SAHRA authorized Berger’s request to transport the fossils onboard a private spacecraft. “What are regulators for, if they’re going to let someone do this?” she wonders. “It has the potential to be a significant event and a significant shift.”

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