AABA Statement Concerning the Hominin Fossils carried on Virgin Galactic Spaceflight

On September 8, 2023, fossil specimens of two hominin species, Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi, were taken into near-space on Virgin Galactic Spaceflight GALACTIC 03 [1,2]. Both fossils are from a UNESCO World Heritage Site [3,4]. This event has raised an enormous amount of concerned attention from the scientific community [5,6,7]. At the most basic level, taking original fossils of rare human ancestors, especially a holotype[8] and a paratype[9] of two species, into space puts them at risk of destruction for no clear scientific reason. This action is also out of line with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature[10] that guides how the paleontological community names biological diversity and, just as importantly, preserves examples of that biodiversity for the future. Additionally, there is concern about the use of fossils for individual promotional activities, and the ethical questions and potential conflicts of interest that arise from such activities.

AABA leadership emphasizes that governmental agencies have authority over the cultural heritage held by their respective countries. Fossils are part of that cultural heritage and may be used for the promotion of science[11]. AABA leadership respects decisions made by these agencies in this regard. While it is the scientific community’s role to provide a scientific perspective on the risks and benefits to governmental agencies, it is not our role to make those ultimate decisions.

However, we hope that this incident will focus the attention of the scientific community on the responsibility that we, as scientists, have to a variety of entities (current and future), when it comes to the study and preservation of objects of great scientific and cultural significance.

Leslea J. Hlusko, President, AABA

Steven R. Leigh, Past-President, AABA

  1. https://www.wits.ac.za/news/latest-news/research-news/2023/2023-09/first-fossils-of-ancient-human-relatives-journey-to-space.html
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/premium/article/ancient-human-fossils-space-virgin-galactic
  3. https://www.maropeng.co.za/
  4. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/915/
  5. Public statement by the Eastern Africa Association for Palaeoanthropology and Palaeontology (EAAPP): https://eaappinfo.wordpress.com/ (accessed 18 Sep 2023)
  6. Public response by the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution (ESHE): https://twitter.com/ESHE_society/status/1701890583319450029
  7. Public statement by the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists: https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=301773955808321&set=a.159433826709002 (accessed 20 Sep 2023)
  8. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1184944
  9. https://elifesciences.org/articles/09560
  10. https://www.iczn.org/the-code/the-code-online/
  11. https://sahris.sahra.org.za/node/621314