O Ubirajara jubatus, fotografado na Alemanha antes da preparação do fóssil: outra repatriação que está encaminhada para o Brasil é a de 998 fósseis encontrados em um contêiner na França CRÉDITO: FELIPE PINHEIRO_2012
Dinosaur fossil Ubirajara returns to Brazil
How a Brazilian fossil smuggled to a German museum and now returned to Brazil became paleontology’s decolonization mascot
Bernardo Esteves | Edição 202, Julho 2023
Paleontologist Allysson Pinheiro had waited for Sunday, July 4, for more than two years. Pinheiro is the director of the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Museum of Paleontology in Santana do Cariri in southern Ceará state, Brazil, home to a collection of fossils of extinct plants and animals that lived in that region more than 100 million years ago. On that day, the researcher traveled to Brasília to welcome the newest and most famous piece in the museum’s collection, the fossils of the dinosaur Ubirajara jubatus. The material had been smuggled nearly fifteen years before and ended up in Karlsruhe, in southwestern Germany. Ubirajara was being repatriated after a noisy campaign waged by Brazilian scientists since late 2020.
It was 10:40 PM when the aircraft landed in Brasília bringing Ubirajara, accompanied by a German government delegation on an official mission to Brazil. Pinheiro waited in the airport sector reserved for authorities, with representatives from the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MCTI), the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Itamaraty), and the German Embassy in Brazil. The paleontologist went to the landing area to watch closely as the two large wooden crates were unloaded from the aircraft’s cargo hold. If it had been up to him, he would have opened the crates right then and there, but the task was scheduled for the following day. The crates were transferred from the airport to a temporary holding area in the Ministry of Science, at the Esplanade of Ministries.
On Monday morning, the paleontologist was finally able to meet the dinosaur. After an employee unbolted the crates, Pinheiro removed several layers of Styrofoam and plastic to unveil the two slabs of limestone with Ubirajara’s fossils. The ceremony’s official photographs captured the unbridled joy on the paleontologist’s face as he contemplated the reptile. Based on his impression from the photographs he had seen before, the creature looked rather homely to him, but he changed his mind when he saw it in person. “The fossil is not photogenic, but it’s beautiful,” Pinheiro said to piauí. “You can’t appreciate its beauty from photographs.”
The slabs of limestone that preserved Ubirajara’s remains each measure 46 by 47 centimeters. One of them shows a claw, part of the spinal column, and the imprint from the tail. The other features a tangle of structures that are difficult to distinguish, the remains of soft tissues preserved in the stone.
Ubirajara jubatus was a small animal, the size of a chicken, but thanks to its tail it was more than a meter long. It was a carnivorous dinosaur that probably fed on small animals. The reptile had a pair of shafts jutting out from its shoulders, preserved in the fossils. Scientists are uncertain about what purpose the shafts served, but they suspect they were used to attract mating partners, since similar structures have been observed in a modern-day bird of paradise species in Indonesia. They inspired the animal’s first name: Ubirajara means “lord of the spear” in the indigenous Tupi language. The second part of the name refers to the reptile’s “mane”, its back covered with feather-like structures. According to paleontologists, this is Ubirajara’s most interesting characteristic. Dinosaurs with feathers had already been found elsewhere in the world, but never in the Southern Hemisphere.
The creature lived some 110 million years ago, and paleontologists believe that an animal its size would have lived two or three decades. Its carcass probably settled on the bottom of a vast shallow lagoon, low in oxygen and high in calcium carbonate, which prevented total decomposition, including that of the soft tissues. This explains why fossils in the Araripe Sedimentary Basin, where Ubirajara was found, preserve details of organ structures that usually fail to survive fossilization.
After Ubirajara was fossilized, it spent millions of years pressed between limestone layers deposited in the sedimentary basin. Over the course of geological ages, the layers on the lagoon’s bottom were lifted by tectonic movements and ended up on top of the Araripe Plateau, extending across part of the states of Ceará, Pernambuco, and Piauí. That explains why fossils from the Cretaceous, the period in which dinosaurs lived, emerge in the region. Due to their abundance and the excellent quality of their preservation, they are coveted by researchers and collectors from around the world.
Nobody knows for certain under what circumstances the fossils of Ubirajara jubatus were found, supposedly in 1995. Most likely they appeared in one of the dozens of quarries in the Araripe Plateau during routine extraction of slabs of Cariri stone, used in construction. Fossils tend to show up in large amounts during this quarrying process.
After being collected, the fossils were incorporated into the collection of the Karlsruhe State Museum of Natural History (known by the acronym SMNK) in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany. They spent years in the basement until paleontologists decided to study the material and describe the species, previously unknown to science.
The first scientist whose curiosity was piqued by the dinosaur was paleontologist David Martill from the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom. Martill is a friend and long-time collaborator of Eberhard Frey, then curator and head of the Department of Geosciences at SMNK. The fossils were analyzed by Robert Smyth, a PhD student of Martill, and published in December 2020 in the specialized journal Cretaceous Research, in an article signed by five scientists from Germany, the United Kingdom, and Mexico.
Brazilian paleontologists blew the whistle as soon as the study came out: Ubirajara had been smuggled out of the country illegally. The fossils belong to Brazil, as determined by a law signed by President Getúlio Vargas in 1942. Brazil may even allow such material to be sent abroad, but only with proper authorization. However, holotypes (the term used for specimens based on which the original description of a species is made) must be kept in a Brazilian institution. Thus, Ubirajara jubatus could not be held legally in Germany.
The fossils found in the Araripe Basin are usually ordinary species such as the fish Dastilbe crandalli, which appears by the thousands. Rarer creatures occasionally appear such as pterosaurs (extinct flying reptiles) or a dinosaur as important as Ubirajara. Since these fossils belong to Brazil, they cannot be sold. But due to the country’s economic crisis, poverty in the region, and the meager wages paid by quarries, workers are vulnerable to pressure from traffickers and middlemen. The other end of this market includes collectors and researchers willing to pay high prices for the fossils, the most valuable of which can fetch seven digits.
That was precisely how a large share of the rarest fossils discovered in the Araripe Basin left Brazil illegally. Most of them are still held in foreign institutions, where they are studied by foreign scientists. Brazilian scientists that study these fossils are often forced to travel abroad for their research.
Ubirajara was not the first species from Araripe to be described from smuggled material, nor was it the first case of international trafficking denounced by scientists. The difference is that this time the protests transcended the specialized research community and made noise outside academia. Cretaceous Research retracted the article by Robert Smyth, Eberhard Frey filed for retirement, and the head of the Karlsruhe Museum, who was also a co-author of the study, resigned his position. For the first time, Germany agreed to return a fossil smuggled out of Brazil, setting a precedent that may well encourage the repatriation of other specimens.
The return of Ubirajara jubatus crowns a successful campaign launched on social media by paleontologist Aline Ghilardi, a researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN). As soon as Smyth’s article came out describing the new dinosaur with feathers, Ghilardi posted a thread on Twitter expressing her indignation at the fact that the Brazilian dinosaur had been described by foreign scientists based on material stored abroad. After explaining the laws forbidding fossils from being removed from the country, she launched the campaign’s hashtag: #UbirajaraBelongsToBR.
Ghilardi read the article the day it was published, and as soon as she saw the list of authors, she got a sick feeling. “There goes the same story again,” she thought. The article was signed by researchers who had already described other extinct reptiles from Brazil, taken from the country under obscure circumstances. Ghilardi’s protest went viral, spreading beyond the circle of paleontologists. “The difference was that we managed to reach people from outside of academia to discuss the issue,” she told piauí.
Several factors helped publicize the case. It was the first Christmas during the pandemic, with a lot of people sheltering at home. “And people got involved in the story, wanting to learn more about dinosaurs and about a fossil that should have been kept in Brazil,” the researcher continued. Professional and amateur artists made drawings of Ubirajara demanding its return. The hashtag #UbirajaraBelongsToBR was published more than four thousand times a day on Twitter in December 2020, according to a survey by paleontologist Juan Cisneros from the Federal University of Piauí (UFPI).
Underlying the campaign was a feeling of frustration among Brazilian researchers concerning a chapter in the history of paleontology that otherwise could have been written in Brazil. In 1996, Chinese scientists had described Sinosauropteryx, an animal with a striped tail that weighed half a kilogram and lived in northeastern China. The creature was covered with fine feather-like filaments, a type of structure that had never been observed in non-avian dinosaurs. (Birds, which can be considered contemporary dinosaurs, descend from a group of these reptiles that survived the impact of the asteroid that obliterated a major portion of life on Earth around 66 million years ago.) “Since the description of Sinosauropteryx, China has become a major hub for paleontology, attracting investments and researchers,” Ghilardi said. If the study on Ubirajara had been published in 1995, it would have been the first dinosaur with feathers described in the world. “It could have changed the history of paleontology, but instead it languished 25 years in the drawer of the incompetent individuals who smuggled so many Brazilian fossils and failed to publish on all of them.”
The Karlsruhe State Museum of Natural History was inaugurated in 1785 and currently occupies a headquarters built in the 19th century and restored after the World War II bombings. As with various other European institutions of the same kind, the SMNK was born from collections formed in the so-called cabinets of curiosities assembled by noblemen, aristocrats, or well-to-do travelers. Such spaces could feature stuffed animals, botanical samples, scientific instruments, ethnographic artifacts, and all manner of objects brought from the colonies maintained around the world by the European countries. With the institutionalization of scientific disciplines, many of these collections were incorporated by the museums of natural history that began to be established in the 18th century.
With five thousand square meters of exhibit space, the SMNK is one of the largest museums of its kind in Germany, even though Karlsruhe is not among the country’s 20 largest cities. However, the collection’s true treasure is not open to the public but stored in the institution’s basement. “The unpublished material is the most interesting,” Felipe Pinheiro, a paleontologist from Ceará, said to piauí. “There are incredible things.” In 2012, Pinheiro got first-hand exposure to the SMNK collection when he spent a week there examining specimens for his PhD research under the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) – he is now a professor at the Federal University of the Pampa (Unipampa) in that same state. The paleontologist reported that the fossils at Karlsruhe are stored in a labyrinthine basement that was used as a bunker during World War II, as he heard from Eberhard Frey.
Known to his colleagues as “Dino” Frey, the museum’s former curator visited the Araripe Basin several times and helped describe such local species as the pterosaur Tupandactylus navigans, whose holotype is stored at Karlsruhe. Brazilian fossils had already attracted the attention of fellow German Peter Wellnhofer, a pterosaur researcher who developed his career at the Munich Paleontological Museum and is now retired. Following in Wellnhofer’s footsteps, Frey and other colleagues worked in Brazil and ensured the continuous flow of fossils from the Cariri region to Europe.
It was Frey who hosted Pinheiro during the week he spent at the SMNK. The German entrusted him with a key that afforded him access to the collections and freedom to explore them. “I handled practically everything, even where I shouldn’t have,” Pinheiro commented. The material was noteworthy not only for the pterosaurs, which he had gone there to study. “They have one of the world’s best and most representative collections of tetrapods,” the researcher said, referring to the group of four-limbed land-living vertebrates.
Pinheiro was amazed by a pterosaur skull preserved in three dimensions with fine details. “It’s beautifully perfect.” His guess is that it is a young Anhanguera, a winged reptile well known in the Araripe Basin. His attention was also drawn to the complete skeleton of another flying reptile, with quite clearly visible wings and legs. “There is nothing like it in Brazilian collections,” he stated. In his view, the most valuable Brazilian fossils are all stored abroad (just as occurs with Brazil’s finest coffee beans, reserved for export). “Our collections in Brazil are good, but the most beautiful material, aesthetically speaking, and the most relevant from the scientific point of view are held outside of the country.”
The researcher saw Ubirajara jubatus in the SMNK basement eight years before the species was formally published. The fossils had not been completely prepared yet, but he suspected that it was a dinosaur with feathers. Since he was more interested in the collection’s pterosaurs and crocodiles, he was not particularly fascinated by the creature. “Ubirajara is a fossil that doesn’t have much aesthetic appeal,” he said. “But for paleontology, the most important specimens are usually not the most beautiful ones.”
Pinheiro learned an important lesson from that visit: the argument is not always valid that European institutions have better infrastructure than their Brazilian counterparts for conserving fossils. “It was not true in the case of Karlsruhe,” he noted. In 2012, the fossils were stored in humid rooms on wooden stands and in wooden drawers, which is not ideal for their conservation. “The standard for every respectable scientific collection is stainless steel cabinets with compactor modules.”
Pinheiro said that Frey invited him to join him to study one of the complete pterosaur skeletons in the museum’s collection. For a paleontologist, to describe a specimen of such quality would normally be a privilege. But the scientist from Ceará felt that the invitation was an attempt to legitimize the study of an illegally exported fossil, and he turned it down. Frey failed to respond to requests for an interview with piauí.
When the Germans were accused of removing Ubirajara’s fossil from Brazil illegally, Frey presented a document authorizing him to take the material to the Karlsruhe Museum. The permission had been issued on February 1st, 1995, by the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM), a Brazilian federal agency responsible at the time for overseeing the collection of fossils in Brazil, later replaced by the National Mining Agency (ANM). Drafted in blanket terms, the document allowed the transportation of “two boxes containing limestone samples with fossils, with no commercial value”, to be studied at the SMNK. There was no specification of the material contained in the boxes, so Frey could use the document to justify having shipped any fossil from Araripe that happened to be in the museum’s collection. When Science asked him about the fossil in 2020, he claimed that the material had reached Germany legally, although he had no way to prove it.
The document that authorized transporting the fossils to Karlsruhe also failed to specify which Brazilian institutions would be involved in studying the material, another provision of the legislation that was overlooked by the scientists that described Ubirajara. The authorization was signed by José Betimar Melo Filgueira, then head of the DNPM office in Crato, in the Cariri region, and now retired. In 2015, he was convicted of administrative impropriety, involved in a “major fraud scheme”, having improperly issued certificates of authenticity for precious gems.
When the Ubirajara case surfaced in late 2020, Betimar told the Sputnik Brazil news agency that he had inspected the material collected by Frey and that “there was nothing out of our day-to-day routine”. But he suggested that Frey had placed the dinosaur fossil in the box after the inspection, or that the piece had ended up in Germany on a later date than the authorization.
Still, according to Brazilian legislation, the Ministry of Science has the exclusive prerogative of authorizing or prohibiting a fossil’s exportation. The employees at ANM “do not have the power to determine to whom a fossil goes or to authorize its transport inside or outside of the country,” as explained to piauí by paleontologist Taissa Rodrigues, a researcher at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES). Rodrigues questioned not only the authorization’s legitimacy, but the complacency of the Karlsruhe Museum in accepting such a blanket document at face value. “Who are these Germans that accept such a silly little letter?”
The Karlsruhe Museum’s collection holds the holotypes of two Araripe species named after employees of the DNPM and ANM who were responsible for overseeing the collection of fossils in Cariri. The centipede Velocipede betimari is a tribute to Betimar, and the tortoise Araripemys arturi is named for Artur Andrade, head of the ANM regional office in Crato. Both were described by David Martill, who also studied Ubirajara jubatus.
Taissa Rodrigues found it odd that specimens named for Brazilian public employees are holotypes held in Germany rather than fossils that remained in Brazil. “This is unethical,” the researcher stated. According to paleontologist Álamo Saraiva, a researcher at the Regional University of the Cariri (URCA), the tributes signal a conflict of interests between inspectors and the scientists they were supposed to inspect. “It’s as if Fernandinho Beira-Mar [a notorious Brazilian drug dealer] named his son after a federal judge,” he compared. “It indicates a suspicious friendship between them.”
When piauí asked him about this tribute, Artur Andrade claimed that it was an acknowledgment for his having accompanied Martill in the field – precisely to inspect the extraction of fossils. He went on to say that this is a common gesture in science. “If receiving this homage is a crime, there are a lot of criminals in paleontology,” he remarked. Meanwhile, Betimar – another ANM employee who received a similar tribute – claimed he is taking his retirement seriously and declined to be interviewed. “I haven’t been dealing with matters pertaining to fossils,” he stated. “This issue is dead for me.”
In September 2021, nine months after the controversy broke out, the German museum responded to a request for repatriation issued by the Brazilian Society of Paleontology, stating that it would not return Ubirajara because the fossil had reached Karlsruhe before 2007, when Germany signed a UNESCO treaty that combats illicit trade in cultural property. The German museum’s stance sparked a second wave of mobilization by Brazilian internauts, marked by a shower of provocative comments on the SMNK ‘s social network.
The museum decided to release an official communiqué informing that the state of Baden-Württemberg was the rightful owner of the Araripe dinosaur, and that the fossil was preserved there for posterity. “It was not the best marketing strategy, because in less than two weeks they received more than 10 thousand less-than-polite posts,” Cisneros reported in a paleontology congress. The museum then closed the comment box with old posts and announced that it would delete comments on Ubirajara in posts unrelated to the topic. But these measures were not enough to contain Brazilians’ outrage, and SMNK even deactivated its Instagram account momentarily.
Weeks after the second peak in grassroots mobilization, Cretaceous Research decided to definitively retract the article that described Ubirajara jubatus (the study had already been taken off the air temporarily on Christmas Eve in 2020, eleven days after its publication, in response to the social networks campaign). “The journal has taken the decision to permanently withdraw the article in press, given that concerns regarding permissions for specimen export remain unresolved nine months after its initial publication,” stated Elsevier, the publishing house responsible for the journal, in a note to piauí.
The retraction of a scientific article is not an uncommon measure among journal publishers. Such recourse is generally used to correct errors made in good faith or to eliminate fraudulent studies. The description of Ubirajara had its technical weaknesses, which were identified in an article by 25 Brazilian paleontologists. According to them, the study’s authors had failed to perform sufficient tests to prove some of their interpretations of the fossil. More detailed analyses using methods like scanning electron microscopy would allow them to resolve the doubts. “One cannot say that the creature has a given structure and merely take the authors’ word for it,” said Taissa Rodrigues, the first author of the rebuttal article, which was ultimately not published. “We expected a little more rigor.”
However, the German scientists’ article was retracted not for scientific reasons, but due to legal issues, which had never happened before. “It’s a turning point,” said paleontologist Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, to piauí. Besides removing the article, Cretaceous Research announced that thenceforth it would no longer accept articles on fossils of uncertain provenance, involving suspected contraband, or belonging to private collections. The journal thus aligned itself with the stricter position already adopted by such journals as Science and Nature, and which is helping to challenge the validity of studies on fossils with dubious provenance. “The scientific journals are a key point for blocking the study of fossils removed illegally from the country,” said paleontologist Juliana Sayão, also of the Brazilian National Museum.
Even while the Germans were saying that they would not return Ubirajara to Brazil, they changed their version of the fossil’s provenance. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Science, Research, and Art for the state of Baden-Württemberg, which administers the Karlsruhe Museum, claimed to Science that Ubirajara had not been taken to Germany by Frey in 1995. Rather, it had been “imported” by a company in 2006 and acquired by the SMNK in 2009. This announcement was an admission that Frey and his colleagues had lied in their article in 2020.
Ten months went by before the Baden-Württemberg Council of Ministers decided that the SMNK should return the Ubirajara jubatus fossil to Brazil. It thereby conceded to a request by Theresia Bauer, Minister of Science for Baden-Württemberg, who felt that the case involved “unacceptable scientific misconduct” by the paleontologists, as reported in the Karlsruhe newspaper Badische Neueste Nachrichten (BNN). According to the decision, SMNK and other museums in that state will have to verify whether their collections contain any other material acquired under unclear circumstances. “If there are any objects in our museums’ collections that have been incorporated under legally or ethically unacceptable conditions, we will return them,” Bauer stated to BNN.
Nearly a year went by between the minister’s announcement and the fossil’s return to Brazil. Ubirajara returned, but there is no other repatriation scheduled from Germany. When piauí asked the ministry headed by Bauer if the museums in Baden-Württemberg had run a fine-toothed comb through their collections and identified any other objects eligible for repatriation, the institution replied that the state’s museums had conducted an inventory of their collections, and that, “So far, there are no other cases involving a potential return to Brazil”.
The negotiations for the fossil’s return involved the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations (Itamaraty) and Ministry of Science and the German Embassy in Brazil. The institution initially mentioned to receive Ubirajara was the Brazilian National Museum, which is now attempting to rebuild its collections after the fire in 2018 that destroyed 80% of them. Many paleontologists were frustrated when this news circulated, feeling that the decision would continue to deprive Cariri of the benefits the fossil could bring (reproducing, on a domestic scale, the colonialism they were denouncing). The National Museum then announced publicly that it had no interest in receiving the dinosaur, thus dissipating the embarrassment.
Ubirajara‘s new home is the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Museum of Paleontology, located in Santana do Cariri, a town of 17.7 thousand inhabitants. The institution was founded in the 1980s by the scientist of the same name, who was also the town mayor. With the museum’s creation, Nuvens intended for the fossils from the Araripe Basin to benefit the local population. “Plácido was a visionary,” said Álamo Saraiva, former director of the museum, according to whom Nuvens helped retain many people in the region that otherwise would have migrated in search of a better life. “He created this identity for the people of Cariri, and the town now lives basically from and for the museum.”
Installed in a two-story house, the museum receives 45 thousand visitors a year, 80% of whom are schoolchildren from all over northeastern Brazil. The exhibits include hundreds of reptiles, fish, insects, plants, and other organisms that lived there during the Cretaceous Period. It ends in a broad hall with life-sized replicas of two dinosaurs and a pterosaur from Araripe. The museum recently acquired sliding steel cabinets to store its collections, of the kind that Felipe Pinheiro did not find in the SMNK in 2012. The roof is being renovated and the lighting refurbished. Another planned improvement is the acquisition of a CT scanner to analyze the fossils, an instrument that few Brazilian museums possess.
The Museum of Paleontology in the Cariri is on an equal footing with its counterparts of the same size in the English countryside, as told to me by Aline Ghilardi – the scientist who launched the hashtag #UbirajaraBelongsToBR –, in a visit to the museum last November during a regional meeting of paleontologists from northeastern Brazil. “But the museum is much more than the exhibits. We need to see the cultural significance of these fossils, the source of their importance.”
Allysson Pinheiro, the museum’s director welcomed Ubirajara at the airport, said that because the fossils are so abundant in the Cariri region, they have been incorporated into the population’s tales. “They’re in the bobbin lace, in the folk songs, they’re a trait in the identity of the Cariri people.” Exhibited at the museum, they reinforce this identity and make the economy turn: although visitation is free, visitors spend money on transportation, food, lodging, and leisure. “Ubirajara will be a tourist attraction and a driver of regional development.” Pinheiro added that Cariri is situated in the center of the semiarid region and faces huge socioeconomic challenges. “The fossils can be the key to change this reality.”
However, the fossils’ cultural dimension has not yet been legally acknowledged in Brazil, as reported to piauí by Rafael Rayol of the Office of the Federal Prosecutor in Ceará. “According to the Brazilian legislation, fossils are still classified as mineral products, just like limestone or sand,” said prosecutor Rayol. If accused and convicted, Ubirajara‘s smuggler would only be subject to a short sentence, just one to five years in prison. “It would be the same sentence as someone who stole granite from the country,” according to the comparison by the prosecutor, who contends that the law should be updated to classify fossils as cultural heritage.
Ubirajara became the mascot for a cause that has gained followers not only among scientists. “It’s a creature the size of a chicken but with enormous symbolism for the decolonial struggle,” said Juan Cisneros, a professor at UFPI who has made decolonization of paleontology his rallying cry. Born in El Salvador, Cisneros became a naturalized Brazilian citizen in 2021 – and Ubirajara weighed in his decision, as he told piauí. “I felt that if I were not a Brazilian, I could be criticized for fighting for a Brazilian fossil,” said the scientist, who has lived in Teresina, Piaui, since 2010. Colonialism is a historical pillar of museum endeavors. Currently, 73 of the world’s largest museums of natural history hold 1.1 billion items, according to a recent survey of institutions from 28 countries (including developing nations). Scientists and activists are demanding the return of part of this heritage, which includes material taken from the European colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Cisneros recalled that the first extinct species to receive a scientific name was Megatherium americanum, a giant sloth whose skeleton was found in the late 18th century in Argentina, on the banks of the Rio Luján, a tributary of Rio de la Prata. The fossil was sent to the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain, where it is held to this day. Cisneros contends that it should be returned to Argentina, where it would stimulate research and the local economy. “The fossil is very important because it inaugurated paleontology as a science,” he stated. “If this isn’t colonialism, I don’t know what it is.”
The professor from UFPI and his colleagues denounced the way that power relations have reinvented themselves in current science: many scientists from the developed countries travel to the developing nations in search of the material that interests them and rarely seek collaboration from local researchers – when they do not ignore the local laws, as happened with Ubirajara and so many other Brazilian fossils. The result is more inequality in science between rich and poor countries. “We are seen as data suppliers, as if they were commodities,” said Aline Ghilardi of the UFRN. “It is no longer the adventurers who come to our shores in caravels and carry away the gold; it is an updated kind of colonialism.”
Ghilardi, Cisneros, and eleven colleagues published an article in 2021 in the journal Royal Society Open Science denouncing colonialist practices in paleontology in Brazil and Mexico. They conducted a survey of 71 scientific articles that described plant and vertebrate animal species from the Cretaceous in the Araripe Basin. They discovered that 57% of the studies had not been conducted in collaboration with Brazilian scientists, and that 88% of the fossils used in the descriptions of new species – the holotypes – were held in foreign institutions. Most of the studies failed to provide a convincing explanation of the material’s provenance, and none mentioned any export authorization.
Most of the material from Araripe catalogued by the survey’s authors was held in Germany, with at least 90 holotypes. The Karlsruhe Museum alone held ten vertebrates (now nine, following the return of Ubirajara). The Berlin Museum of Natural Sciences has 13 holotypes of plants, and the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History holds at least 47 insects, spiders, and other invertebrates smuggled from Brazil. According to Cisneros, the museum curators’ interest in the fossils from northeastern Brazil explains the large amounts of specimens in Germany, but there are also Brazilian fossils in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, and other countries.
The Berlin Museum houses another emblematic case of colonialism in paleontology: Giraffatitan brancai, the tallest dinosaur on exhibit in the world. It was a long-necked giant that could measure more than 22 meters long and 13 meters high. The animal was excavated in the early 20th century in southeastern Tanzania, then still a German colony. “Why do people have to go to Berlin to see this dinosaur?” Cisneros asked. For him, the skeleton’s place should be in Tanzania. “You could see Kilimanjaro and the world’s largest dinosaur on the same trip. That’s how it should be.”
The potential economic boost from fossils with great aesthetic appeal for the countries in which they were found is one of the main arguments for repatriation. Cisneros was one of the paleontologists who denounced to the Office of the Federal Prosecutor in 2014 the sale of a near-complete pterosaur skeleton advertised on eBay for 262 thousand dollars. The professor from UFPI was shocked by the amount charged for the fossil. “If you weigh the animal, it’s more expensive than cocaine,” he compared. The individual that smuggled that fossil knew what it was worth. “This amount obviously doesn’t go to the poor quarry worker from Cariri that must have sold it for peanuts,” Cisneros said. “It’s not the poor people that benefit, but the European dealers.”
The capacity of developing countries to conserve the fossils in adequate conditions is frequently questioned by those who oppose the material’s repatriation. In the case of Ubirajara, the argument was cited by David Martill, one of the scientists who described the species. “If this specimen had been in the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, it would now be a pile of ashes,” the British paleontologist claimed in 2020 to Galileu, the first Brazilian media outlet to cover the case.
The destruction of the National Museum was not the only tragedy of its kind in Brazil in recent years. A fire in 2020 consumed most of the collection of the Museum of Natural History and the Botanical Gardens of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Belo Horizonte, destroying Brazilian paleontological and archeological treasures. Fires also gutted cultural institutions such as the Museum of the Portuguese Language in 2016 and a warehouse of the Brazilian Film Archives (Cinemateca Brasileira) in 2021, both in São Paulo.
The argument, repeated by Martill in other interviews since then, enraged the Brazilian scientists who demanded the fossil’s repatriation. On Twitter, Aline Ghilardi recalled that hundreds of fossils were destroyed by World War II air raids. The SMNK itself in Karlsruhe was hit by bombs in 1942 and lost several items from its collection. The material destroyed during the war probably included the holotype for Gryposuchus jessei, an extinct relative of modern crocodiles that was found in the western Amazon and was housed in a museum in Hamburg.
The fire in 2019 that destroyed much of the roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is often cited by Brazilian scientists as proof that the developed countries’ cultural heritage is also vulnerable to this kind of accident. I mentioned the case to David Martill when he quoted, again, the fires that had struck Brazilian museums, in an interview to piauí in January this year “The difference is that when the French firefighters went to drop the fire out, there was water in the system,” the British scientist claimed, alluding to the lack of water that hindered extinguishing the fire in Brazil’s National Museum. “I don’t want to sound rude, but whenever I collected fossils in Brazil, I felt that the material would be safer in German or British collections, and I was proven right when your National Museum burnt down.”
The Brazilian National Museum housed many fossils from the Araripe Basin that were lost forever in the fire. Part of the material could be recovered, but there is still no complete information on what was possible to save. The museum’s director, Alexander Kellner – himself a researcher of extinct reptiles from Araripe –, admitted the incalculable losses. “The National Museum proved incapable of caring for its own collection. It was ugly,” Kellner said to piauí. “We are accountable, but this doesn’t justify stealing fossils from Brazil.”
A researcher of the animals found in the Araripe Basin, Martill was the co-organizer of a reference book on the region’s fossils. He traveled to Brazil for the first time in search of fossils in 1988 and worked in the country over the course of two decades, sometimes making more than one trip a year. He said he was amazed by the quality of the material, quite well preserved in the region’s terrains. He conducted his excavations bearing documents from the DNPM that authorized him to take fossils to England, on condition that they be used for teaching and research, and not for commercial purposes. “As far as I was concerned, I was working legally,” he stated. He described various species from Araripe that ended up in museums outside of Brazil. Fearing trouble with the law, he decided not to come to Brazil anymore, and today he only studies Brazilian fossils that are stored in collections elsewhere.
Martill says he saw Ubirajara jubatus for the first time when the fossil was already housed in the Karlsruhe Museum. He could not confirm the material’s provenance. “I have no recollection of having seen it before that occasion, but neither do I remember every single fossil that we collected years ago,” he stated. “I am pretty sure that it was purchased.”
Martill is also known in Brazil for the controversial remarks that irked local scientists. He was one of the authors of a study in 2015 that described a purported four-legged snake that lived in the Araripe Basin during the Cretaceous (a subsequent study disputed that interpretation and claimed that in fact it was a lizard). At the time, the paleontologist was asked why he had not involved Brazilian scientists in the fossil’s study, as the law determined. “What difference would it make?” Martill countered in an interview with the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. “Do you also want me to have a black person in the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple, and a woman, and maybe a homosexual, too, just for a bit of all round balance?”
Martill is against the laws of countries like Brazil, Italy, and China that ban the trade of fossils found in their territories. For him, restrictive legislation hinders science, such that material of great paleontological interest is not collected and is lost to science. According to him, the opposite occurs in the United Kingdom, where museums are full of fossils, because their commercialization and collection are permitted, as long as authorized by the respective landowners. The paleontologist believes that sooner or later the specimens belonging to private collections will end up in museums, as he argued in an article in 2018: “[The fossil] has been in the ground for 125 million years unavailable for study, a few more years will not hurt.”
The British paleontologist leads the list of foreign scientists that presented the first species of dinosaur described from a fossil from the Araripe Basin, the Irritator challengeri. Published in 1996 in the Journal of the Geological Society, the article was also signed by Eberhard Frey and three British colleagues. The fossil had been removed from Brazil illegally and ended up in the collection of the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History, just over 60 kilometers from Karlsruhe. The article’s authors state that the specimen was purchased, but they provide no further explanation.
A curious detail about this discovery is that the authors purchased a fossil whose shape had been adulterated to make it look more impressive than it truly is. Only the posterior part of the skull was legitimate; the other half had been forged by the traffickers using plaster and bits of the same animal’s bone, to give the impression of a complete skull. The scientists were furious after they discovered the farse, when they were already preparing the fossil, and they decided to record their irritation for perpetuity in the name chosen for the creature.
The Irritator made the headlines again in May this year, when a study was published based on a CT scan of the skull, concluding that it was a faster and more versatile dinosaur than the scientists previously believed. As occurred in the case of Ubirajara, Brazilian paleontologists protested on the social networks and the journal Palaeontologia Electronica decided to retract the article.
One of the most emblematic requests for repatriation of cultural heritage to a developing country involves the Benin bronzes, consisting of thousands of statues, plaques, and other artifacts made of various metals starting in the 13th century by the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Benin, now southern Nigeria. Ransacked by the British in 1897, a large share of the pieces ended up in museums in Europe and the United States.
Nigeria has demanded repatriation of the bronzes since the country’s independence in 1960. In recent years, several museums and other institutions have committed to return the pieces. In 2021, the German government said it would return the more than one thousand bronzes that are in that country; to date, only 22 pieces have been returned. British institutions such as the University of Cambridge in England and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and the Horniman Museum in London have also returned a modest number of artifacts.
The British Museum in London detains the largest number of Benin bronzes, totaling some nine hundred items – and thus far it has given no sign that it might return them. The institution also holds the Rosetta Stone, which allowed deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs two hundred years ago, and the Elgin Marbles, sculptures that were part of the Parthenon in Athens and were taken to the United Kingdom in the 19th century. The museum defends itself by citing a law from the 1960s that prevents it from giving up pieces from its collection. “People will look twenty years from now on the British Museum as the cave of Ali Baba, not as an institution that propagates equality, culture, and human rights,” declared Egyptologist Monica Hanna of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Marine Transport in an interview with the BBC podcast The Inquiry.
In June, the Nationalmuseet, the Danish National Museum, announced that it will return one of the five Tupinambá feather capes incorporated into its collection in the 17th century. The capes are considered sacred by the indigenous peoples, and only six more of them are known to exist in the world, all of which in Europe. Another museum in Copenhagen holds fossils of humans and extinct mammals from Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais, Brazil, collected in the 19th century by the Danish naturalist Peter Lund, a pioneer of archaeology and paleontology in the Americas. No negotiations are under way to repatriate them.
The controversy involving Ubirajara has already led to the return of other fossils. One case was Cretapalpus vittari, a spider one centimeter long that lived in the Araripe Basin in the Cretaceous and was named in honor of singer Pabllo Vittar, one of whose fans is Matthew Downen, the paleontologist that described it. The holotype was studied by researchers at the University of Kansas and was housed in the institution’s Museum of Natural History. When the species was described in The Journal of Arachnology in May 2021, the campaign to repatriate Ubirajara had already raised a global ruckus, and Brazilian paleontologists also posted on social network that the spider from the Cariri had reached Kansas illegally. Following the controversy, the Americans decided voluntarily to return the spider to the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Museum of Paleontology.
Paleontologist Renan Bantim, a professor at the Regional University of the Cariri and one of the local museum’s curators, led the Brazilian side of the negotiations for this operation. “Between the article’s publication and the meeting with the Americans to negotiate the return, scarcely two weeks went by,” Bantim told piauí. Besides Cretapalpus, the paleontologists from Kansas sent 35 more spiders collected on the same occasion, whose existence was unbeknownst to the Brazilians. The material had been excavated in 2003 by paleontologist Paul Selden, one of the article’s authors. He knew that it was illegal to buy fossils but was unaware that it was also illegal to hold a holotype outside of Brazil, according to Bantim.
The material was returned in October last year. “The spiders were packed in a large box that came by FedEx, delivered directly to the museum’s door in Santana do Cariri,” the Brazilian paleontologist said. Cretapalpus vittari was on display at the institution for several months with a plaque explaining its symbolic importance, and it is now kept in the museum’s storage.
Another repatriation currently underway involves 998 fossils that will return to Brazil from France. However, in this case they are not specimens in museum collections, but pieces discovered in a container by customs agents in the port of Le Havre. The recovered fossils feature plants, insects, fish, and reptiles, including a pterosaur.
The repatriation was decided through an agreement signed by the Brazilian Office of the Federal Prosecutor and the French Ministry of Justice. In May last year, there was a ceremony to officially seal the repatriation, but the Brazilians who participated in the event returned empty-handed. More than a year later, the fossils are still in France. According to Allysson Pinheiro, who participated in the ceremony, the delay is due to bureaucratic glitches that have finally been resolved, and the material is about to be returned to Brazil. It will be sent to the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Museum of Paleontology.
While negotiations are proceeding to repatriate fossils held in institutional collections, the case is more complicated with smuggled material advertised on e-commerce websites. In January this year, Cisneros reported to the Office of the Federal Prosecutor the American store Indiana9 Fossils, which was selling material from the Araripe Basin that most probably left Brazil illegally.
By denouncing the case on Twitter, Cisneros called attention to the sales prices for the fossils – a cicada from the Cretaceous goes for 3,120 dollars and a dragonfly for 3,900. “No doubt bought from a poor worker for the price of a bottle of moonshine,” he wrote. There is only one way to claim that the fossils left Brazil legally: saying that they left before 1942, when the Vargas law made fossils the country’s property. “Can I truly believe that [the scientists] came to conduct an excavation in 1941, while listening to Glenn Miller?” the researcher quipped.
When Allysson Pinheiro opened the crates and saw the fossils of Ubirajara jubatus in early June, he said that he relived his entire scientific career in a flash. He also thought of Plácido Nuvens and the struggle to keep the fossils in the Cariri. “We’re taking very important steps to create better living conditions for the local people,” he stated. He acknowledged that it was a victory. “But we will only realize its full dimension ten years from now, with the things we hope this event will help materialize.”
On the one hand, the director continued, Ubirajara‘s repatriation is an important step in the discussion on how science should be conducted. “Scientific knowledge is necessary for societies to evolve, but it should not overlook the limits set by individual and collective ethics.” The fossil’s return to Brazil was not the episode’s only outcome, according to Pinheiro. “We also began to discuss how to decrease regional asymmetries in matters of science.”
Another on-going legacy of the episode should be the increasing difficulty for foreign researchers to study fossils with dubious provenance. Foreign scientists suffered absolutely no qualms when they described specimens from the Araripe Basin without proving their origin, as commented by Juliana Sayão of the National Museum. “That is, until we finally reached this point, where it has become embarrassing to publish reports on fossils from Brazil, because people now know that the material left the country illegally.” Martill’s comments corroborate the view of the paleontologist from Rio de Janeiro. “Brazilian fossils are becoming toxic for researchers,” the British scientist stated.
According to Felipe Pinheiro, the paleontologist from Ceará and professor at Unipampa who spent a week in the Karlsruhe Museum, the Ubirajara case “killed” the German institution’s collection. Brazilian researchers familiar with that museum’s collection will not remain silent if a new study comes out on these fossils. “If the material is not repatriated, they won’t be able to publish anything about it,” he commented.
According to Cisneros, scientists at foreign institutions holding smuggled Brazilian fossils are running out of oxygen. “We’re blocking all the roads,” the scientist said. “The fossils won’t be taken out of the cabinet drawers because it would be an embarrassment, and they won’t publish because nobody would accept the studies.” The Brazilian fossils’ repatriation is only a matter of time. “They have no other way out.”
The return of Ubirajara jubatus was celebrated formally in a ceremony in the auditorium of the Ministry of Science on the afternoon of June 12, with Brazilian and German authorities attending. Representing the Karlsruhe Museum was paleontologist Julien Kimmig, who replaced Eberhard Frey as curator of the fossils. In his solemn speech, the German scientist said that the story of Ubirajara and the way the fossil had been treated in his institution “were very unfortunate”, and that he and his team were satisfied by its return.
In a conversation with the press after the ceremony, Brazil’s Minister of Science Luciana Santos said that she would make the repatriation of other Brazilian fossils a priority for her administration. Meanwhile, the Germans did not give interviews. While the authorities were dispersing, I asked Kimmig if there were any plans to return other fossils housed in the Karlsruhe Museum. The curator looked embarrassed and said that he did not know. “That’s up to the Ministry [of Science, Research, and Art for the state of Baden-Württemberg].”
Ghilardi and Cisneros, the two paleontologists who spearheaded the campaign for Ubirajara‘s repatriation, traveled to Brasília to participate in the dinosaur’s reception and did not tire of taking selfies in front of the fossils. At the end of the ceremony, they proceeded to a bar in the Asa Norte to celebrate the diplomatic victory sparked by the social media campaign. While toasting with sparkling wine, they discussed ways to keep the mobilization for the cause alive. The group has already defined the priority for repatriation, now that Ubirajara has returned. “The next one has to be the Irritator,” Cisneros said, referring to the first dinosaur from the Araripe Basin.
During the celebration, the scientists also talked about the repatriated fossils’ future. Ubirajara fell into a taxonomic limbo after the article with its description was retracted. For all intents and purposes, it is as if the species had never been described, and as if the name Ubirajara jubatus has no validity. With the fossils’ return to Brazil, the material can be analyzed again by other researchers, who will have the prerogative to rebaptize the animal – even with the original name if they deem it appropriate.
Ghilardi had already signaled her interest in analyzing the fossils before their return and said that the study should involve other scientists. If it is up to her, the first author of the new article should be, again, Robert Smyth, Martill’s student who led the original study of Ubirajara. The dispute involving the fossil cast a disparaging shadow on the young paleontologist at the beginning of his career, even though he is not to blame for all the uproar, Ghilardi claimed. The Brazilian has exchanged messages with Smyth and reported that he is open to the idea of studying the material again.
Following the ceremony in Brasília, Ubirajara finally returned to Ceará on board the aircraft with the state governor, Elmano de Freitas of the Workers’ Party (PT). Before reaching their new home, the fossils were displayed during a formal event in the state capital Fortaleza and spent time at the headquarters of URCA and the Araripe Geopark, both in the town of Crato. They did not reach the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Museum until the last week of June. The public will only be able to view them for a few weeks. “It’s a holotype. And the basic rule for museums is that holotypes can only be on exhibit for short periods,” Allysson Pinheiro said. The little dinosaur that rocked the world of paleontology will be exhibited in its own special room on the museum’s second floor, starting on July 16.
Repórter da piauí, é apresentador do podcast A Terra é Redonda (Mesmo) e autor dos livros Admirável novo mundo: uma história da ocupação humana nas Américas (Companhia das Letras) e Domingo É Dia de Ciência (Azougue Editorial)