Stealing from the Land of Giants: A History of Paleontology in Latin America

Paleontology in Latin America is marred by a history of colonialism.

In 1991, a team of Argentinian and American paleontologits from the University of San Juan and the University of Chicago went on an expedition in Triassic-aged rocks of northwestern Argentina. In an outcrop of siltstone, Argentinian paleontologist Ricardo Martinez found a small skeleton exposed at the rock surface. The find changed our understanding of early dinosaur evolution. Martinez had happened on the remains of Eoraptor lunensis, one of the oldest known dinosaurs dating back approximately 230 million years ago.1 Rather than this remarkable find staying in Argentina, where it was discovered, the fossil was returned to Chicago and placed on display in the Field Museum of Natural History where it stayed for several years.

Partially complete spine, limbs, and lower jaw of a small dinosaur fossil
Eoraptor lunensis holotype fossil. Kumiko, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

The story of Eoraptor lunensis reflects a common theme in the paleontology of South America, and Latin America in general. For centuries, the area’s fossil treasures have been extracted adn shipped off to museums or private collectors in Europe and the United States in what is referred to as “colonial paleontology.” It is one of the ways in which we diminish the impacts of scientists from outside of the Euro-American paleontological community.

Before I continue, I want to note that I am in no way accusing any particular paleontologist of racism or colonialism in this post. Instead I am commenting on the systemic issues of racism and colonialism in paleontology as a whole. I wholeheartedly do not believe that the American paleontologists in the case of Eoraptor lunensis acted in any way to purposefully lessen the contribution of the Argentinian paleontologists. Rather, I think this story reflects on how established balance of scientific power favors a system of extracting fossils from places like Argentina for study elsewhere.

Darwin’s South American Fossils

Probably the earliest written account of the paleontology of South America was done by Charles Darwin, who published the “Observations on South America.” In this lesser-known Darwin work, the naturalist described the geology of the Falkland Islands, glaciers in Tierra del Fuego, and sand dunes along the coast of Argentina that contained reworked modern mollusk shells.2

He also took particular note of the river terraces that he correctly identified as evidence of tectonic uplift associated with the geologic forces that formed, and continue to form, the Andes. The multitude of his personal sketches of river terraces demonstrates how intrigued he was by the notion of rivers cutting down in response to geologic uplift.2

As he traveled along the southern tip of South America, Darwin noticed fossil shells high above the shoreline. Like the many other early paleontologists I’ve written about (here’s a link to my overview on this topic), Darwin was inspired by the odd find. He determined they were not transported there like the more modern shell deposits made by shorebirds. In his writings, Darwin noted:

…at an estimated height of 400 feet, extensive layers of shells, mostly comminuted but some perfectly preserved and closely packed in black vegetable mold… the only evidence of the shells having been naturally left by the sea consists in their invariable and uniform appearance of extreme antiquity.

Charles Darwin, 18462

Darwin extracted multitudes of fossils from around South America, many of which were used to build his ideas on evolution.3,4 Among these were several specimens of the ancient mammal Toxodon, a barrel-chested creature that resembled a rhinoceros without a horn. All of Darwin’s specimens currently reside in the Museum of Natural History in London.

A fossil skull of a giant ground sloth
The fossil skull of the giant ground sloth Toxodon that Darwin discovered in Uruguay, now located in the Natural History Museum in London (Image: Natural History Museum, CC-BY 4.0)

Darwin’s collection of fossils, primarily in Argentina, spurred interest in further expeditions into South America to dig up fossil treasures. It is fitting that in Argentina, the “Land of Giants” (the literal translation of Patagonia) is home to a panoply of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered, the titanosaurs, as well as giant ground sloths and Darwin’s beastly Toxodon.

Like Darwin, the initial expeditions to South America found amazing new fossils that helped shape our understanding of the past and of important aspects of life itself. However, these were almost entirely shipped back to the United States or Europe where scientists published them, named them, and then placed the fossils on display in museums thousands of miles from their origin.

It could be argued that this is nothing but theft, the pillaging of a nation’s cultural and historical artefacts. More recently, such ideas as these are more commonly being referred to as “colonial paleontology.”


Colonial Paleontology

Geosciences are by their nature extractive as they rely on taking of samples from the ground.3 Geology and its related disciplines developed to better understand the Earth and its extractable resources. The extractive nature of geoscience favors those in power and often exploits the less fortunate. In the United States, geology and paleontology developed mostly at the expense of indigenous peoples, whose lands were often pilfered of fossils without their consent.

A large excavation of fossils with a giant wheel and dozens of people digging into the ground.
C. W. Peale’s “The Exhumation of the Mastodon” illustrates the intense physical labor required to dig extract fossils from the ground. Note the paleontologist, Peale himself, standing heroic in the right-hand side of the image holding a long sketch of the fossil. He is not doing any of the work, but does look quite heroic. (Public Domain)

Paleontology became closely entwined with petroleum exploration in the 1920’s when said industry needed a well defined biostratigraphy. The result was a shift to a more colonial and extractive nature of paleontology on an industrial scale.3 Paleontologists began creeping across the globe extracting as many fossils almost like a plague of fossil-hunting locusts.

In addition, many of the paleontological discoveries that were used to develop key concepts like evolution, were built on the study of fossils by Europeans taken from their colonial territories. These were carried out almost entirely without permission of local inhabitants, even though they largely contributed to either the discovery of the fossils or their extraction.3 The end result was the elevation of many “founding fathers” of paleontology at the expense of indigenous peoples from which the fossils were derived.

There has been a push by countries in Latin America, and across the world, to reclaim their lost paleontological heritage. Following the discovery of vast beds filled to the brim with the fossil remains of whale ancestors in Chile, American scientists descended upon the dry coastal Chilean desert to dissect the sediment of its fossil treasures. Most of these proto-whale fossils were expatriated to museums and collections elsewhere. For several years, local residents of the Atacama Desert have been fighting for these fossils to be repatriated back to Chile from where they came.5

Chile also is trying to reclaim remains of the giant ground sloth Mylodon from the London Natural History Museum, and has been successful at retrieving other important fossils that were extracted from its territory since the 1800’s.6

Argentina and Brazil have laws that were made to limit colonial paleontology and prevent outright theft of their fossil heritage. All fossils are considered property of the state and any removal of fossils from the country is illegal. In Brazil, fossil exploration activities by those from outside of the nation are highly regulated with strict controls on what outside researchers can and cannot do with fossils collected.7

A similar law exists in Argentina that limits fossil removal to only reproductions, and both the Argentinean Paleontological Association and Argentinean Geological Association have policies that request all foreign geoscientists involve local scientists in their work.7 It is hoped that this will lessen the colonial impacts of paleontology and bolster the efforts of local scientists.

So, what can be done? I think specimens that have been taken should be repatriated back to their home countries, and we should make every attempt to try and recognize the many people who have had their involvement in paleontology erased. I’ll talk about one such person, Florentino Ameghino, next post.

In addition there are key aspects all current geoscientists should abide by in their work and research:

  • Ensure all landowners consent to the work you do on their lands
  • Determine ownership of both fossils and the related data
  • Respect local laws regarding fossil and rock collection
  • Try to involve local people in research — but also give them credit for the work they do.

The colonial nature of paleontology is something we must come to terms with. It’s a very real aspect of the science, and only by acknowledging it and trying to rectify the situation can we make the sicence more inclusive.

References

  1. Serano, P. Expeditions: Argentina, 1991 (webpage). Click here for link.
  2. Darwin, C. (1846). Geological Observations on South America. Smith, Elder, and Company.
  3. Monarrez, P. M., Zimmt, J. B., Clement, A. M., Gearty, W., Jacisin, J. J., Jenkins, K. M., … & Thompson, C. M. (2021). Our past creates our present: a brief overview of racism and colonialism in Western paleontology. Paleobiology, 1-13.
  4. Fagan, M. B. (2007). Wallace, Darwin, and the practice of natural history. Journal of the History of Biology40(4), 601-635.
  5. Mariño, P. N., (2021). Chile’s Atacama Desert: Latin America’s forgotten paleontological treasure. Click here for link.
  6. Vogel, G. (2019). Countries demand their fossils back, forcing history museums to confront their past. Click here for link.
  7. Petrulevičius, J. F., Martins-Neto, R. G., and Digiani, M. C. (2001). Fossil conservation in Brazil and Argentina. Acta Geologica Leopoldensia, 24, 255-257.

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