In a move that is garnering considerable criticism from the scientific community, a recent Virgin Galactic mission transported two ancient hominin fossils to the edge of space.
Launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico on Friday, May 8, the V.S.S. Unity spaceplane carried fragments from Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi, hominin species fundamental to understanding human evolution. Beyond being seen as a futile, crude gesture, scientists argue that the stunt lacked scientific grounding and that transporting human ancestral remains in such a manner raises various ethical issues, among other concerns. That Unity didn’t actually reach space, which it never does, adds a certain degree of insult to this injury.
Galactic 03, the company’s fourth suborbital flight in as many months, began at 10:34 a.m. ET, reaching a peak altitude of 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) and clocking in at a top speed of Mach 2.95 before touching down again at 11:36 a.m. ET. However, it’s noteworthy that the mission, while flying very high, did not cross the Kármán Line—the internationally accepted boundary of space.
The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (a.k.a. Wits University), which took part in the planning of the exercise, stated in an eye-rolling press release that the fossils have now become the “oldest astronauts to travel to space.” Timothy Nash, a South African billionaire and conservationist, was a passenger on Unity and he personally carried the precious cargo during the journey.
Professor Lee Berger, the Director of the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at Wits University and a National Geographic explorer in residence, is a reputed yet controversial figure in paleoanthropology. He and his team discovered the A. sediba fossils at the Malapa Fossil Site in South Africa in 2008, and H. Naledi at the Rising Star cave system, also in South Africa, in 2013 and then announced to the world in 2015.
For the Galactic 03 voyage, Berger selected a fragment of the collarbone, or clavicle, from the A. sediba specimen, estimated to be 2 million years old, and a thumb bone from the H. naledi fossil, roughly 250,000 years old. These fossils were securely stored in a carbon fibre tube. Berger personally hand-carried the fossils to Spaceport America, where they were handed to Nash in a ceremony just before the flight.
“The journey of these fossils into space represents humankind’s appreciation of the contribution of all of humanity’s ancestors and our ancient relatives,” Berger noted in the Wits press release. “Without their invention of technologies such as fire and tools, and their contribution to the evolution of the contemporary human mind, such extraordinary endeavours as spaceflight would not have happened.” Bernhard Zipfel, Curator of Collections at Wits, added that these fossils are some of the most documented and have been made available globally thanks to scientific and open-access initiatives.
Needless to say, the Galactic 03 mission is not without its detractors, with various scientists questioning the purpose behind such an endeavour, and whether it was appropriate to do so given scientific, cultural, and ethical considerations.
When Chris Stringer saw Berger’s tweet (above) from September 1, he thought the fossil material was headed to somewhere like a synchrotron or a DNA lab, so he put a “like” on the tweet, but then others pointed out that these fossils had been rocketed to the edge of space. “My first reaction was disbelief that anyone could have pulled such a stupid and arrogant stunt,” Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum, explained to Gizmodo over email. He came to the realization that Berger “had really done this, and inexplicably, had institutional permission to do it.”
Stringer is now worried that Berger has “very likely lost what little scientific credibility he had left,” in reference to the recent eLife and Netflix documentary controversies (more on this here and here, but in a nutshell, Berger’s claim that H. naledi practised burial rituals based on findings in Rising Star Cave sparked significant debate and media attention earlier this year). “I’m not sure where he—and the very important naledi sites—can go after this,” Stringer added.
The mission received blessings from several officials, including Vice Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi of Wits University, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, Ian Miller from the National Geographic Society, and the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). The journey’s stated purpose in the SAHRA application was “promoting science and bringing global recognition for our science of human origins research in South Africa.”
Gizmodo reached out to Wits University for comment, and it relayed an emailed statement from Ben Mwasinga, senior manager of heritage conservation management at SAHRA, detailing the institution’s perspective, saying the permit application aimed to spotlight recent paleoscience discoveries in South Africa, with SAHRA “satisfied that the promotional benefit derived was appropriately weighted against the inherent risk of travel of this nature.” To which Mwasinga added:
All applications submitted to SAHRA are publicly accessible to allow any member of the public to provide comment. Furthermore, any person may appeal our decisions within a (fourteen) 14-day period. No objections were received for this application.
Eleanor Scerri, head of the Human Palaeosystems Group at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany, believes the concerns brought up in this incident touch upon issues of heritage access and control.
“It seems obvious that fame, wealth, and power should not be privileged over scientific integrity, rigour and ethics when it comes to gaining access,” she wrote via email. “Would a request like this have been sanctioned coming from anybody with less wealth or fame? It very much feels like different strokes for different folks, with a resounding slap in the face to anyone who works hard to preserve human heritage for future generations.”
Scerri said this episode unsettlingly echoes a time when African palaeoanthropology was treated as a novelty by colonialists and adventurers, rather than priceless world heritage. “This is why it is hard to see either the spirit of human endeavour or the promotion of African science here,” she added.
On X (formerly Twitter), several scientists, including biological anthropologist Alessio Veneziano, raised concerns about the suborbital flight’s motives and scientific validity, the ethics of transporting ancestral remains, Berger’s unique fossil access, and the potential perversion of palaeoanthropology. Sonia Zakrzewski, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Southampton, expressed on X, “I am horrified that they were granted a permit,” and says she plans to use this as an example of unethical practices, noting, “This is NOT science.”
Alan Morris, a biological anthropologist and professor emeritus in the department of human biology at the University of Cape Town, said Berger has a history of “stretching his evidence in order to get maximum publicity,” as he explained over email, citing the scientist’s claims of brain tissue preservation in A. sediba, ancient dwarf hominins in Palau, and the aforementioned claims of burial and art among H. naledi.
“Berger runs with crazy ideas without the scientific rigour needed to support them, but the payout is not science, it is fame and the benefits that brings in this modern world of social media,” said Morris, who believes there’s something very wrong with sending fossils to the edge of space and questions why and how a permit was granted for such an act.
“I have been on SAHRA committees in the past that have considered access to human fossil and subfossil specimens and at the heart of the decision is always the science,” Morris explained. He posed some pertinent questions, such as how the research aims to benefit from sending fossils to the edge of space and what advantages this offers to descendant communities.
Answering his own questions, Morris concluded: “In fact, there is NO scientific value—this is ONLY about publicity.”
Gizmodo reached out to Lee Berger for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
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