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SA Heritage Resources Agency defends decision to allow rare fossils to travel with space tourists

SA Heritage Resources Agency defends decision to allow rare fossils to travel with space tourists
The Council of the South African Archaeology Society wrote a letter to the South African Heritage Resources Agency expressing its dismay and embarrassment at what has become known as the hominin space flight. | Palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger. (Photos: Wikipedia / Nature)

Archaeologists are demanding an apology from the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the administrative body that rubber-stamped approval for two rare fossils to be sent on a space tourism flight.

The council of the South African Archaeology Society wrote a letter to the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) expressing its dismay and embarrassment at what has become known as the hominin space flight.

For almost three weeks, renowned palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger has been criticised by scientists around the world for allowing two fossils to be sent into space on a flight that cost nearly half a million dollars. 

The SA Archaeology Society believes that Sahra should have realised the risks involved in the endeavour and not issued a temporary export permit for the fossils in the first place.  

It all began on 8 September under clear skies at Spaceport in New Mexico, the home of the Virgin Galactic space flight company that was founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson.

Businessman Timothy Nash, who owns a chunk of the land on which the Cradle of Humankind lies, joined two other paying customers on board Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity for a trip to the edge of space.

Along with Nash were a 2-million-year-old clavicle from an Australopithecus sediba and a 250,000-year-old Homo naledi thumb bone, which he carried in his cargo pants pocket.

The clavicle happened to be the first sediba fossil discovered by Berger’s son Matthew back in 2008.

The Unity blasted off into suborbital space about 80 kilometres above the Earth, allowing its crew, passengers and fossils to experience weightlessness for a short time during the hour-long trip.  

Berger had applied for the temporary export permit in July, stressing in the application that it would be an opportunity to promote science and bring global recognition to human origins research in South Africa.

“This would make these fossils the first extinct humans into space and act as a sign of respect by humanity to our African ancestors who gave us the technology, skills and mind that allow this perhaps greatest expression of human technological achievement – the exploration of space,” Berger wrote in the permit application.

But not long after Nash touched down in Spaceport, it was realised that the PR exercise had gone horribly wrong.

Scientists around the world questioned the point of the mission. There were questions over why rare heritage objects were sent on a risky flight to space.

There was also concern that radiation in space might have altered the microstructure of the fossils. Other scientists went so far as to say it smacked of colonialism, harking back to a time when researchers showed little regard and respect for the human remains of indigenous populations.  

“Normally, the permit applications for handling fossils are extremely tight. To export fossils out of the country, you have to have a very good motivation why the fossils should leave,” said Nicholas Wiltshire, treasurer of the SA Archaeology Society.

Society president David Morris referred to the Kathu Pan handaxe, a million-year-old artefact that is kept in the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, in the Northern Cape, as an example of how such objects should be looked after.

“It has been in quite high demand for exhibitions around the world and Sahra states that when it travels, it does so with a professional officer from the museum, so that would be a baseline requirement which I think was not honoured in this case.”

Researchers have expressed concern that Sahra doesn’t have the oversight it once had because the organisation no longer uses panels of experts to assess permit applications. These committees were disbanded in 2015.

“The committee would contribute to an opinion on any given application, and then the staff would weigh up this advice before coming to a decision,” said Morris.  

The use of committees to assist in permit applications is used by several provincial authorities, explains Wiltshire.

The Western Cape, he added, also consults registered conservation bodies in the application process.

Another concern highlighted by the Archaeology Society is that the hominin space flight could set a precedent, where heritage objects are used for publicity stunts by the rich. 

“Next you could get someone wanting to take the Mapungubwe Golden Rhino on a balloon ride over the Amazon, in an effort to highlight South African heritage,” said Wiltshire.  

Members of the Archaeological Society are not the only people to have written to Sahra about the space venture.

Lyn Wadley, a respected archaeologist and an honorary professor of archaeology at Wits University, also penned a letter to the regulatory body.

“I am now deeply ashamed to be an archaeologist in South Africa,” she wrote. 

“I am ashamed of my country, of Sahra, and of all the heritage practitioners who have been party to the exploitation of our priceless heritage for the sake of a media spectacle. 

“I refer, of course, to Sahra issuing a permit to send fossils into space, not for scientific purposes, but for ‘promoting exploration’.”

She went on to say that the damage can only be repaired proactively.

“In my view, the best strategy would be to admit briefly, but publicly, in an international forum, that this was a mistake made unintentionally, but one that will not be repeated.”

Berger released a statement earlier in the week saying he valued the role of collaboration in science.

“The decision to send fossils of Homo naledi and Australopithecus sediba into sub-orbital space was the result of careful consideration and in-depth discussions with guiding and regulatory agencies. 

“All the necessary permissions and permits were acquired, and great care was taken to ensure the safety of the fossils, which returned from the brief flight undamaged and intact and are now in South Africa,” he said, adding that he was open to ongoing dialogue.

In response to questions sent by Daily Maverick, Sahra said the organisation was satisfied that all due processes had been followed in the issuing of the permit that allowed the fossils to be sent into suborbital space. It added that they noted concerns raised by all parties.

Sahra said they seek review and input from external parties when processing certain applications.

“We also provide for a commenting period for all interested and affected parties, as well as a 14-day appeal period for all our permit decisions,” the statement read.

The problem with this, said Wiltshire, is that while the application process can be accessed publicly on Sahra’s system, keeping an eye on hundreds of applications a month is difficult.

“We just want Sahra to say sorry, we made a mistake, we retract the permit, the damage was done. It did happen, but it’ll never happen again. And that’s that,” said Wiltshire. DM

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