Go back

Scientists slam ‘PR stunt’ that sent hominin fossils into space

Images: Virgin GalacticBrett Eloff [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Billionaire’s spaceflight with irreplaceable remains dubbed “unnecessary” and “neocolonial”

The blasting of two hominin fossils from South Africa into space in a billionaire’s pocket earlier this month has been slammed by scientists as “unethical” and “a publicity stunt”.

The fossils included an Australopithecus sediba clavicle, which lay undisturbed in a cave in the South African countryside for two million years before being found in 2008 and taken to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. On 8 September, it journeyed further from home when it was taken into suborbit aboard a Virgin Galactic commercial spaceflight, along with a comparatively modern 250,000-year-old Homo naledi metacarpal discovered in 2013.

Placed in a carbon-fibre tube emblazoned with the South African flag, they were taken aboard the spacecraft in the US state of New Mexico in the pocket of Timothy Nash, a South Africa-born billionaire who supports human origin research in Africa.

Nash said in a statement that he was “humbled and honoured to represent South Africa and all of humankind, as I carry these precious representations of our collective ancestors on this first journey of our ancient relatives into space”.

Brave or boneheaded?

Lee Berger, a palaeoanthropology researcher who led the teams that unearthed the fossils and who was granted an export permit to make the hominin spaceflight possible, faced an avalanche of criticism from domestic and international colleagues when the news broke.

Taking to X and other social media platforms, scientists questioned the sense of risking the priceless fossils for what many of them, including Huw Groucutt, an archaeologist at the University of Malta, dubbed a “publicity stunt”.

“There is the physical risk that something would happen to the fossils in transit, the risk during the spaceflight, the exposure of this material to radiation on the flight into space—all this risk for what?” said Robyn Pickering, an isotope geochemist at the University of Cape Town.

Several scientists dubbed the move “neocolonial”, comparing the spacecraft to the ‘tall ships’ that bore African resources, artefacts and humans away to be exploited under the guise of colonialism.

The Southern African Society for Quaternary Research said that it “notes with concern the ethical issues surrounding the respect for ancestral remains and the possibility that cultural heritage may have been exposed to unnecessary risk”.

The European Society for the Study of Human Evolution said: “We do not see the scientific merit of this project and question the ethics of potentially damaging these unique materials. We urge the responsible stewardship and protection of these irreplaceable scientific resources.”

Shouldering blame

The South African Heritage Resources Agency granted Berger permission in July to temporarily export the fossils for the stated purpose of “a spaceflight for the promotion of science and discoveries in South Africa”.

Many scientists, including Pickering, believe the permission should not have been granted. “We have some of the best heritage laws in the world,” Pickering said. “We just need Sahra to follow them.”

In a media statement issued in response to criticisms of the spaceflight, Sahra said the detailed recordings of the two fossils to date made it “satisfied that the promotional benefit derived was appropriately weighted against the inherent risk of travel of this nature”.

Sahra also said that it publishes all applications submitted to it and that any person may appeal against its decisions within a 14-day period. It had not received any objections to the application, it said.