Sunday, December 12, 2010

Geology in the News - Fossil Thievery in Peru

Fossil "piracy" and smuggling, in the high deserts of Southern Peru, are the subject of this New York Times article.

A few snippets from the article:

"Nestled between the Andes and the Pacific, the sparse desert surrounding this outpost in southern Peru looks like one of the world’s most desolate areas. Barren mountains rise from windswept valleys. Dust devils dance from one dune to the next.

But to the bone hunters who stalk the Ocucaje Desert each day, the punishing winds here have exposed a medley of life and evolution: a prehistoric graveyard where sea monsters came to rest 40 million years ago. These parched lands, once washed over by the sea, guard one of the most coveted troves of marine fossils known to paleontology."

[I am posting these, as news links don't seem to last forever.]

"Discoveries here 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.

“This is perhaps the best area in the world for marine mammals,” said Christian de Muizon, 58, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in Paris who led an expedition here in November. He ranks the Ocucaje (pronounced oh-coo-CAH-heh) and adjacent sections of desert with top fossil areas like Liaoning Province in China, where ashfall famously preserved plumed dinosaurs."

As this may be a relatively-newly discovered area, it may be that it is largely unexplored by professional paleontologists. Another consideration, perhaps similar to Argentina, Peru may not have the financial resources to properly collect and study the fossils in this remote area.

"Peru is astonishingly rich in archaeological and paleontological sites, so much so that the issue is part of a delicate political debate here. The loss of national treasures to collectors from abroad has set off concerns about sovereignty, perhaps best exemplified by the feud between Peru and Yale University over Inca artifacts taken by Hiram Bingham, the American explorer typically credited with revealing the lost city of Machu Picchu to the outside world a century ago.

For now, the Ocucaje remains open to just about anyone who wants to search for fossils here. Peruvian law, while vague, classifies fossils as national patrimony and requires fossils found in the country to remain in Peru, unless special permission is granted."

There are concerns about mining company trucks passing through the area and the damage that might be done by them, also.

"But enforcement and preservation here seems like a distant dream. The government controls the desert but leases parts to mining companies, which could damage or destroy fossils. Looters have already ravaged archaeological burial sites on the desert’s fringes. The police rarely even enter the area."

Perhaps, the government/universities could "cut a deal" with the mining companies to encourage them and their employees to help preserve the fossils and protect the area from looters.

"On the streets of Ica and nearby towns, visitors can already see such fossils — and buy them. Merchants sell fossilized shark teeth, about the size of a man’s hand, at prices from $60 to $100 apiece. They say other fossils are available, at higher prices. “Ocucaje yields many bones,” said one merchant, Marcos Conde, 35.

...Meanwhile, seizures of illegally obtained fossils are increasing, surpassing 2,200 this year, compared with about 800 last year, largely at Lima’s international airport, said José Apolín of the Ministry of Culture’s office of recovery. Sometimes officials stumble upon large fossils by chance; in 2008 the police found a jawbone thought to be that of a mastodon in the cargo hold of a bus.

Recent discoveries elsewhere in Peru are raising interest in the country’s fossils and the potential for more trafficking. Almost 14,000 feet high in the Andes, for instance, a mining company controlled by Australian and Swiss investors announced a startling discovery last year: more than 100 dinosaur footprints embedded in walls of stone.

Rodolfo Salas, paleontology curator at Lima’s Natural History Museum, said evidence that his institution obtained, including photos of fossils for sale by private dealers, showed that the Ocucaje was especially vulnerable. He said the trade was supported by huaqueros, or looters of archaeological sites, who turned to fossil hunting."

Promoting a cooperative atmosphere between the mining companies would require some "give and take" between both entities. As for smaller fossils, e.g., shark's teeth, etc., it is harder to police, especially considering the impoverished conditions of the area. $60 to $100 for a large shark's tooth is going to make things difficult as to getting the peasants "on board" in preservation efforts.

Preserving sharks' teeth are not the most important issue here, as long as scientists can collect a wide array of teeth to determine the number of species present and if there are any new ones. The primary concern is of the preservation of vertebrate skeletons. Usually after the death of a vertebrate organism, scavengers and predators tend to disarticulate (scatter) the bones, so complete (or even partial) skeletons are rare. Another consideration, looters don't have time to excavate complete skeletons, so they often steal the skull. That has happened here in the United States, also. Even among well-meaning collectors from past decades, not being able to collect the skeleton, they made off with the skulls, leaving future vertebrate paleontologists to wonder "Where is the skull?", at the time of discovery of the skeletons. The skull is vitally important in the identification process and once the skull have been removed from a site without proper documentation of the location, much of the scientific value has been lost.

[At another time, I will offer opinions on the "professional versus amateur" collector issues as it relates to fossils and archeology.]

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