Skeletons in the closet: ethics, law, and politics in palaeontology

Palaeontology is unique among scientific disciplines in that it thrives on the exchange of information across diverse communities, both academic and non-academic. However, palaeontological research does not always best serve these communities. A practice that is prevalent in palaeontology is “parachute science”, referring to the practice whereby researchers drop into, collect data and leave without the involvement or interaction with the local community. Put simply, these parachuting palaeontologists are benefitting from the resources of a country and often, the efforts of local people, without giving anything back. Lack of paleontological and scientific involvement with communities in the Global South may be a remnant of colonial-era palaeontology. The history of natural science is inseparable from the history of European colonialism when local specimens were brought to the homeland of the colonisers to be reposited and studied in museums for the sake of the “greater scientific good”. The culture of theft and plunder, a legacy of colonialism perpetuates in palaeontology, even now. The drive for discovering the next new extraordinary fossil can be linked to several ethical and legal issues, where fossils are excavated without record and smuggled across borders to finally end up in collections across the world.