Monday, December 13, 2010

Let's Not Forget the Palaeontologists...

Despite the number of times that archaeologists get confused for palaeontologists (no, we do NOT excavate dinosaur bones), it is easy to overlook the fact that those who do uncover the world's pre-Homo sapiens past often face their own set of illicit smuggling/collecting threats to their work, field sites, and continued integrity as a scientific discipline. This recent article from the New York Times highlights these problems well.

The article details the ongoing illicit excavation and smuggling threat to an immense cache of 40 million year old marine reptile, shark and whale fossils, now being gradually exposed by the elements in Peru's Ocucaje desert, near the south coast city of Ica. Discoveries include "gigantic fossilized teeth from the legendary 50-foot shark called the megalodon, the bones of a huge penguin with surprisingly colorful feathers and the fossils of the Leviathan melvillei, a whale with teeth longer than those of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, making it a contender for the largest predator ever to prowl the oceans." The area is becoming well known to palaeontologists with marine mammal specializations, such as Dr. Christian de Muizon, of the Natural History Museum of Paris, perhaps rivaling parts of Pakistan, long known for its concentration of whale fossils.

However, now that so many nearby, and national, archaeological sites have been/are being looted out, smuggling attention is turning to fossils. Peruvian law classifies fossils along with archaeological artifacts as "national patrimony," and thus special permission is needed for their export. The hyper-remoteness of the region, it's aridity, and the near-complete lack of police presence means enforcement's more or less a pipe-dream. Indeed, many shops in Ica itself sell fossils: shark teeth for from $60-100, with rarer pieces going for higher. I wonder what kind of documentation comes with purchase, or is available upon request to prove that one's new store-bought fossil was excavated according to best palaeontological practice? If that segment of the illicit fossil trade that violates international laws at the behest of greedy dealers is anything like the antiquities trade (and it's clear that it is), I'm guessing the answer is no. According to the article, it's mostly itinerant seaweed harvesters/merchants who collect fossils on their way back from the coast. I would guess that this is not the world's most lucrative profession, thus making the urge to brave tough conditions in the desert a strong one.

According to the article, 2,200 seizures of illicit fossil cargo occurred this year at Lima's airport, up from 800 last year. This could be viewed in one of two ways: does the increase mean illicit smuggling attempts are increasing, or that customs agents are getting better at recognizing fossils and the tell-tale signs of concealed cargo, or both? It's hard to tell. What is apparent is that this is a growing concern, even in this remote region, as the still-impoverished huaqeros (tomb robbers) look for new ways to feed the market. By way of summary, the article linked to above details the rescue of more than one dozen Chimu-era artifacts robbed from a tomb near Conache, with a lawyer now contacted, and police and archaeologists stepping up patrol of the area. Similarly, professional palaeontologists, both local and foreign, must now race against time, the elements, and the criminal underworld to complete expensive field expeditions successfully, when they are fortunate enough to find good specimens of the species they're after. With the palaeontological community aware of the problem, it is now up to ethical local dealers and international buyers to cut off the illicit market at the source, only allowing sale of 'duplicate' skeletal elements from common species with a complete paper-trail and provenance provided. Buen suerte, Peru!

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