It was meant to be a grand gesture that would raise the profile of South African science – by allowing fossil bones found at the nation’s Cradle of Humankind site to be flown into space on a Virgin Galactic flight last month. The result was very different. A wave of global condemnation has since engulfed the research team – led by the palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger – that allowed the ancient bones to be used this way.
Some scientists raised initial doubts about the fossils’ spaceflight. However, these have since swelled into a tidal wave of criticisms, with leading experts and academic institutions denouncing the incident as “callous”, “unethical”, “extraordinarily poorly thought-out”, “a publicity stunt”, “reckless” and “utterly irresponsible”.
Now pressure is mounting to ensure that national and international regulations are strengthened to prevent ancient bones and artefacts of humanity’s predecessors being exploited in this way again. The use of fossils for promotional purposes must never be repeated, say researchers.
“At least six national and international bodies have since criticised the space venture, and hopefully nothing like this will ever happen again,” said Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.
This point was backed by Professor Mark Collard, Canada research chair in human evolutionary studies. “Remains of ancient human species are a very limited resource,” he told the Observer last week. “There are very few of them, and the only justification for putting them at risk has to be scientific. That cannot, in any way, be said for this incident.”
The specimens – the first ancient hominin remains to leave Earth – consisted of a collarbone of a 2 million-year-old Australopithecus sediba and the thumb bone of a 250,000-year-old Homo naledi. These were carried on the flight – which reached a height of 88km above Earth’s surface on 8 September – by passenger Tim Nash, a South…