Our past creates our present: a brief overview of racism and colonialism in Western paleontology
Summarized by Kaleb Smallwood, a junior undergraduate geology student at the University of South Florida who intends to use his degree to pursue a career in vertebrate paleontology. Outside of geology, his interests include video games, anime, and mythology.
Rather than a traditional scientific study using data and presenting results, here the authors attempt to unravel the racism, coverings, exclusion, and colonialism of paleontology’s past in order to better understand the racism present in the sciences today and how best to go about rooting this bias out.
Since the inception of the discipline, paleontologists have extracted fossils, minerals, and fossil fuels from other lands, often without regard to the Indigenous peoples or otherwise residing there. This results in environmental destruction and displacement, as the scars left by this extraction tear up land and plants, leaving holes where digs occurred. On the topic of environmental devastation, the history of paleontology is also inextricably linked to the oil, coal, and gas industries. Paleontologists have served these industries in the location and extraction of nonrenewable resources in exchange for funding, job security, and support since they began to better understand how and where oil forms, implicating them in climate change. Another form of extraction exercised by paleontologists is that of biological specimens, both living and dead. For example, the several species of the finches (Figure 1) Darwin studied and extracted on his voyage on the HMS Beagle, such as the saffron-cowled blackbird and vampire finch, were pulled from their habitat and sent to Europe. Paleontologists have also participated in grave robbing, removing the remains of Native Americans and Black slaves to examine their cranial structures in an effort to further their racist views that these peoples are more closely related to primates than white people. Many of these remains of people are still held in storage and studied. While the loss of biodiversity from an ecosystem is a grave consequence of extraction of animals, the removal of humans from their lands is also an egregious crime of paleontologists. It is a flagrant act of disrespect to the culture and lives of the people from which they are taken.
There is also the issue of the Myanmar amber trade, from which paleontologists have gained amber for examination in exchange for money that has been used to fund a decades-long civil war resulting in numerous deaths. Measures to limit and prohibit the publication and procurement of such amber have been put in place, but not all are ubiquitously accepted. Scientists are strictly forbidden, however, from publishing on Myanmar amber obtained after the most recent coup in February 2021.
Returning to the topic of museums, scientists often take materials from other countries and peoples for the purpose of education and exhibition without asking, and this colonial way of obtaining their exhibits is cited as a cause for concern. Museums often refuse to acknowledge the methods by which they procure their items, do not credit the places they got them from, refuse to compensate these countries or return their property, have disproportionate wealth and resources compared to other museums, lack diversity in their staff, and pay their staff little for their work. Accountability, inclusion of the voices of the people whose history they display, and a willingness to return items would go a long way in correcting these flaws.
There are also injustices present in the teaching of paleontology. As the authors point out, textbooks and courses in the Americas tend to omit the ways in which scientists in the field have previously trampled upon Black and Native American people. For example, the erasure of their history and the fact that the first known fossils in the Americas were discovered by slaves is rarely mentioned. As is apparent, science has never been the unbiased and apolitical field students are led to believe it is. Furthermore, these courses are often taught by white men, further excluding other racial groups. The power system this creates makes it difficult for those with concerns to voice them for fear of reproach.
Why is this important/The big picture: Underscoring each point in this article is the constant reminder that the challenging task of acknowledging and reflecting on the past and current racially discriminatory of paleontology, the geosciences, and science as a whole, is a crucial first step in resolving those same issues. The writers call on paleontologists to consider whether the specimens they use come from Indigenous lands and ask who truly owns their specimens; they ask paleontologists to consider the people that their research may impact and their role in it, as giving proper credit to the right people without bias or exclusion is a crucial practice in any field, not just the sciences.
Monarrez, P., Zimmt, J., Clement, A., Gearty, W., Jacisin, J., Jenkins, K., . . . Thompson, C. (2021). Our past creates our present: A brief overview of racism and colonialism in Western paleontology. Paleobiology, 1-13. doi:10.1017/pab.2021.28