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Promotional use of hominin fossils ‘will face more scrutiny’

Image: Lee Roger Berger research team [CC By 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


South African heritage body defends permit issued for controversial spaceflight, but notes scientists’ concerns

Applications to use South African hominin fossils for promotional purposes will be subject to more scrutiny in the future, the country’s heritage body has said.

The statement comes after two South African hominin fossils were launched into sub-orbit earlier this month as part of a publicity push that was slammed by scientists around the world as “unethical” and “unnecessary”.

The fossils—a Homo naledi thumb bone and a Australopithecus sediba collarbone, both found near the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg—climbed to the edge of space on 8 September aboard a Virgin Galactic spacecraft in the pocket of billionaire Tim Nash, a backer of human origins research in Africa.

Earlier this year, the South African Heritage Resources Agency had granted paleoanthropologist Lee Berger permission to temporarily export the fossils for the purpose of the flight, with the stated aim of promoting science and discoveries in South Africa.

In a statement issued to the science community last week, Sahra “notes” the community’s concerns. It says it stands by its decision to grant Berger’s permit “as part of a heritage promotion and awareness campaign”, but that “further promotional activities involving the use of fossil hominin material will be subject to greater scrutiny”.

Exploiting African resources

The agency also responded to allegations that the space flight fuelled “neocolonial” scientific practices that extract and exploit African resources for little or no local gain.

Sahra rejects the claim that its granting of the permit was part of neocolonial practices, adding that such claims “undermine the agency of South African institutions in deciding upon the management of South African heritage”.

The agency also flags challenges with suggestions, made by scientists in the wake of the space flight, that hominin remains should be given the same respect and dignity as that afforded to human remains due to their role in human evolution and human ancestry.

However, reclassifying hominin fossils as human remains would have “wide-reaching implications on hominin research in South Africa”, Sahra said.

For instance, it would impose a 60-day public participation process for all paleoanthropological digs and research, as well as require the reburial of hominin remains in designated burial sites.

“It is Sahra’s belief at this time that this would bring a large amount of paleoanthropological research in South Africa to a halt,” the agency said.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe