In a bold move, the fossils of ancient human relatives were sent on a celestial voyage, sparking intense debate within the scientific community.
Just last Friday, Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft soared 88 kilometers above Earth, holding not only two pilots, an instructor, and three passengers, but also relics of two prehistoric humans from southern Africa. This voyage of the VSS Unity, which safely landed within the hour, has thrust the ethics of cultural heritage protection into the spotlight. The South African government’s green light for this journey has particularly intensified the debate.
Archaeologists Speak Out
— Lee R Berger (@LeeRberger) September 1, 2023
Robyn Pickering, a geologist from the University of Cape Town, voiced her reservations: “There’s no scientific justification for dispatching ancestral remains into space just for the thrill.” Although dinosaur bones have ventured beyond our atmosphere since the 1980s, this marks the inaugural journey for hominid remains. The fossils hail from the Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi species, discovered near Johannesburg by Lee Berger, a renowned paleoanthropologist.
In July, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) approved Berger’s request to transport specific fossils to Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico spaceport. These precious remnants, joined by South African entrepreneur Tim Nash, were onboard with a unique purpose. While Berger hinted at potential scientific research, he emphasized the chance to “highlight science, exploration, and the pivotal role of South Africa in unravelling human ancestry.”
Weighing the Risks
Not all experts echo Berger’s sentiment. Pickering, who played a role in determining the age of A. sediba, believes the potential hazards of space flight could overshadow its benefits. Others, like Yonatan Sahle from the University of Cape Town, see the move as a continuation of colonial-era mindsets, with western scientists overriding African institutions’ decisions. The European Society for the Study of Human Evolution, too, voiced its concerns over the mission’s ethical foundation.
Defense from the Offense
Reacting to the disapproval, SAHRA’s Ben Mwasinga emphasized that the mission’s promotional benefits had been adequately assessed against the inherent travel risks. In a press release, Bernhard Zipfel, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, mentioned that the chosen fossils had already been comprehensively documented, providing some assurance against potential loss. But Rachel King, an archaeologist specializing in cultural heritage policy, cautioned against such justifications, highlighting potential adverse precedents.
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