Economic richness drives fossil richness: The impact of socio-economic factors and colonial history on the study of fossils
A team of seven paleontologists from Germany, the UK, South Africa, Brazil, and India, investigated how colonial history and socio-economic factors affect the global distribution of fossil data. IISER Pune faculty member Dr. Devapriya Chattopadhyay is part of this collaboration published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution (DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01608-8).
The paper represents a collaboration that developed during the pandemic between women in STEM across four continents. Along with the paper, the authors have released plain language summaries of the work in over 20 languages, which can be accessed here.
Fossils provide an essential record of how life on Earth has evolved. However, the fossil record is incomplete, primarily because the dead remains of an organism rarely survive the vagaries of nature to emerge as a fossil. Apart from the natural scarcity of the fossils compared to the living creatures, the fate of the fossils after their discovery plays a significant role in our ability to use them meaningfully to reconstruct past biodiversity.
The authors suggest that this knowledge imbalance, resulting from colonial history, transfer of fossils from the collected regions to museums of colonizing countries, and unfavorable socio-economic conditions in previously colonized countries, negatively impacts paleontological research.
This study, led by Nussaïbah B. Raja and Emma M. Dunne, proposes a few steps for the paleontological community to adopt for reducing the global disparities in paleontology. They encourage the community to develop more equitable, ethical, and sustainable collaborations based on mutual trust and respect. They suggest that funding bodies should encourage equitable global partnerships between resource-rich countries and local communities in lower-income countries. Finally, they argue for increased access to palaeontological knowledge, particularly for lower-income countries and suggest that this can be done through repatriation of fossil specimens to their countries of origin, more open-access publishing options, and investing in institutions in lower-income countries so that they can manage and protect their fossils locally.
Raja, N. B., Dunne, E. M., Matiwane, A., Khan, T. M., Nätscher, P. S., Ghilardi, A. M., Chattopadhyay, D., 2021: Colonial history and global economics distort our understanding of deep-time biodiversity. Nature Ecology & Evolution. (DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01608-8)