Protocol wars

Finding a new species of fossil organism is not usually a big deal.  There are lots out there, and palaeontological journals publish formal descriptions regularly.  The finder moves on, and as often as not allows other scientists in the field free access to the original specimens.  Free exchange of published data, allowing colleagues to add to knowledge of materials by direct study, and, in most branches of science, verification by inter-laboratory analysis of material is part and parcel of research.  The priceless Apollo lunar samples and many meteorites move freely because of these informal protocols.  Things are different when the materials are “hot news”, none more so than remains from the human bush of evolution (Gibbons, A. 2002.  Glasnost for hominids: seeking access to fossils.  Science, v. 297, p.1464-1468).

Protocols for hominid specimens often allow access only to the finders, their colleagues and trusted friends, until they have performed the most minute investigation and written detailed monographs.  The rules are sometimes laid down legally at governmental level.  This can extend even to casts and CT-scan facsimiles. There are often delays of a decade between first publication of a new species and basic information, and the fossils’ entering the public domain.  Unsurprisingly, this frustrates palaeoanthropologists who do not have the luck to make a major discovery – useful hominid material is exceptionally rare, despite the fanfares which greet its first publication.  Consequently, eager students of human origins try various ploys to get in on the act, such as detailed photography of specimens in museums, and furtive digs for new material at the original sites.  Sometimes they are thwarted, sometimes not (See April Earth Pages News, Homo erectus unification?).  Berhane Asfaw, of the Middle Awash Research Team that has done so much to advance knowledge of our early ancestors, commented, “You don’t know how we suffered in the field to get these fossils”, when putting a halt to such a disingenuous attempt to snaffle pictures.

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