Fossil smuggling: the end of unscrupulous archaeologists?

Fossil smuggling: the end of unscrupulous archaeologists?

Nickname: ObirajaraJubatos. Age: 110 million years. Occupation: dinosaur. Status: fossil. Current Residence: Karlsruhe Natural History Museum, Germany. Its name may not ring a bell, but the story of this fossil shook the entire scientific community. The case specifically begins on December 13, 2020, when a team of British, German and Mexican paleontologists published the analysis in the journal. Cretaceous search.

During its lifetime, this bizarre chicken-sized dinosaur had a mane of fur adorning its back, and four hard keratin rods erected on its shoulders. The only specimen found so far comes from Brazil, and it is kept in the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe. Above all, it is a new species called Ubirajara jubatus, which means “lord of the spear” in Tupi, a language indigenous to Brazil. For the scientific community, but also in more trivial terms, this fossil is invaluable.

Except that… as soon as the article is published, questions arise. How did this unique copy, mined in the largest country in Latin America, end up in Germany? Why is there no joint Brazilian scientist or national institution in this post? Doubt is expressed: Ubirajara jubatus It could be the result of the trade in fossils. “We quickly realized that there was a problem because it is an overall pattern, that is, it is a single specimen that was used to describe a new species. However, the laws of the Brazilian states state that the overall patterns found in the territory cannot be kept outside the country”, says Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí, Brazil.

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Buying and selling fossils becomes illegal in Brazil

Since that date, any fossil found on Brazilian soil has become the property of the state. It is illegal to sell or buy any sample.

Regulations evolve

The decree obliges foreign researchers to formalize a partnership with at least one Brazilian research institution to conduct studies on fossils excavated in the country.

Ubirajara transferred to Germany

This is the date when German paleontologist Eberhard Frey could have recovered and transported a fossil. Obirajara In Germany. But the controversy only erupted in December 2020.

Rebound in Rebound

Fortunately, therefore, that Ubirajara jubatus Precious … Otherwise, it may simply pass unnoticed. But then what? Was it to be found, taken out of the country, displayed in a European museum and published in a magazine? In short, stole with impunity? Brazilian scientists have alerted the possible illegality of this fossil, the magazine Cretaceous search In any case, the allotted publication was temporarily withdrawn, until researchers who identified the dinosaur provide written documents proving a legal export.

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It was the German paleontologist Eberhard Frey, curator of the Karlsruhe Museum, who recovered the fossil at the end of the 20th century, in the Ararib Basin, located in the north of the Rif. The researcher has so far provided only one document: a permit signed in 1995 by the Brazilian National Mining Agency, which limits the export to Germany of two boxes containing fossils of no commercial value. The document does not mention anywhere that it is a dinosaur specimen. “Legally, he would also need a signed license from the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to be able to win, Juan Carlos Cisneros commented. Paleontologists who do this are detrimental to the profession! They make science look like Indiana Jones.”

The amazing story doesn’t end there: Last September, a new announcement came that further complicates matters. The Ministry of Science and Research in the German state of Baden-Württemberg – on which the Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe relies – announced that the version supported by Eberhard Frey was ultimately wrong! The fossil was already excavated in 2006 by a private company, and then bought by the German Museum in 2009. Contact us science and competition, Neither Eberhard Fry nor the museum wanted to provide an answer to these new discoveries.

refused to return the fossil

So what do you believe? “It doesn’t matter because the fossils found on Brazilian soil have been in Brazil since 1942. They cannot be bought or sold under any circumstances, it is simply against the law,” Juan Carlos Cisneros explodes. either way, Ubirajara jubatus It was robbed, and the South American nation was plundered. However, the Karlsruhe Museum still refused to return the fossil. “They claim that everything was It was made according to German law, where it is virtually legal to buy fossils. But they have deliberately chosen to ignore Brazilian legislation: it is a form of scientific colonialism”, The paleontologist protests.

For his part, the editor said Cretaceous search She ruled in favor of the Brazilian scientific community. Faced with a lack of evidence proving the legitimacy of this fossil, the publication describes Ubirajara jubatus It was permanently withdrawn. A decision that shows that morality is finally gaining a place in palaeontology, trusts Nusseibeh Raja Schöpp, a paleontologist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany: “For about two years, scientific journals have updated their publication policy. Now, most of them require fossil authentication documents in order to verify that everything was done legally.”

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Above all, this case represents a turning point regarding the practice of palaeontology according to Alexander Kellner, Director of the Museum of Natural History in Rio de Janeiro: “The trade in fossils reached its peak between the 1970s and 1990s in Brazil. Since then, this phenomenon has declined. But for the first time, thanks to the Obirajara case, the floor has become empty. The scientific community is finally declaring that it will no longer accept this kind of outdated practice” .


Brazilian law is mocked, it is a form of scientific colonialism. – Juan Carlos Cisneros, paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí, Brazil


Far from being an isolated case

What put an end to what had hitherto been a true taboo in the paleontological world? Because the storyObirajara It is of course anything but an isolated case. This specimen is far from being the only South American fossil to have been forced into exile. “With the help of other researchers based in Brazil and Europe, we have compiled a list of all published Brazilian fossils that have been found outside the country. There are more than ‘a hundred!'” “, The breath of Juan Carlos Cisneros. Once again, this number may have been greatly underestimated. “This is only the tip of the iceberg, because many fossils are not published, let alone those in the living room of wealthy collectors,” Adds a paleontologist. This phenomenon does not only affect Brazil. Many nations in South America, Asia and Africa are regularly pillaged for their fossils. “Most states that were former colonies have adopted laws to protect themselves from these kinds of practices, but the legislative framework of these states is often ignored or mocked,” Check out Juan Carlos Cisneros.

Fossil smuggling: the end of unscrupulous archaeologists?

The cousin of the T-Rex has returned to Mongolia

In 2013, during a ceremony, the United States brought back a fossil of Tarbosaurus batar, cousin Tyrannosaurus Rex Mongolia. I was robbed in the Gobi desert,

Fossil smuggling: the end of unscrupulous archaeologists?


Universal pattern held in Germany

The presence of a four-legged snake – or lizard – petrified Tetrapodovis It was revealed in 2015. This blanket pattern discovered in Brazil is still in a special group in A.

Fossil smuggling: the end of unscrupulous archaeologists?


Giant pterosaur rescued in distress

Thanks to the seizure by the Brazilian police in 2013, this unique pterosaur fossil Tupandactylus navigans Found among thousands of limestone slabs

Moreover, a published fossil could hide many other fossils… A recent example demonstrated just how widespread this trade is. I warned of the disturbances caused by this case Ubirajara jubatus, which was echoed even by the United States, Matthew Downen, a young researcher at the University of Kansas – after writing a publication in May 2021 – realized that the fossil of the Brazilian spider Cretabalbos Vittari He was working on it had already arrived in North America without any permit. Then he contacted Brazilian scientists in order to organize the repatriation of the fossil. On October 6 Cretabalbos Vittari Returning to his native country, he resided at the State Museum of Paleontology in Ceará. But he never came home alone! The University of Kansas has already moved to bulk shipment: The specimen was accompanied by 35 other spider fossils, all of which had been exported from Brazil without a legal permit.

A traditional and economic issue

“This story shows that even without having to, some paleontologists might act this wayMorally, fix the mistakes of the past, Juan Carlos Cisneros joined again. In addition, it could pave the way for new collaborations.”

If Brazilian scientists demand the return of fossils to the country, it is necessary above all to restore part of their heritage, and to further develop research in palaeontology. But there is also an economic problem, says Alexander Kellner: “If you have interesting fossils in your museum, and they are published, you can raise more money for research, and to make your museum more attractive.” By enriching their collections with a variety of fossils, museums are also attracting more tourists. “This benefits the local economy, culture and education at the same time,” Juan Carlos Cisneros details.

But the road is long. On October 15, the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor’s Office submitted a request to cooperate with the German authorities to proceed with the return of the fossilUbirajara jubatus Towards South America, with the rejection of the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe bypassed. To this day, the request remains unanswered.

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