Local fossil-finders aren’t keepers

  • October 28, 2013

Dr Jonah Choiniere interacts with a fossil display at Wits University. Image courtesy of Wits Vuvuzela

There’s a particular law in the United States that governs the discovery of dinosaur fossils on private land. It’s called “finders keepers”.

The gist of the US legislation is rather interesting. It says that anywhere in America, if you find a dinosaur fossil anywhere on your land, you can do what you like with it because it belongs to you.

You can mount it on the wall in the centre of your lounge; you can hand it over to the state if you so choose, or you can legally auction the thing and make a pretty penny.

But that’s in America.

In South Africa, the laws regarding the discovery and extraction of fossils are clear.

All fossils, archaeological material and meteorites are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act, no. 25 of 1999, and are all regarded as part of the “National Estate”.

According to the legislation, no fossils may be excavated, collected, sold or traded in South Africa without a valid permit – which renders fossils technically worthless in that they don’t have a monetary value.

Theory in application

Dr Jonah Choiniere (left) of the University of the Witwatersrand and Selby Vorster at the R393 road cutting dinosaur fossil site. The large fossilised thigh bone (femur) can be see protruding from the ground just below Choiniere’s foot, and it was this section that was stolen. Image courtesy of SAHRA

Dr Jonah Choiniere is a senior researcher at the Wits University Palaeosciences Centre of Excellence. He is also a graduate of George Washington University, and knows all about the age-old “finders keepers” adage.

Choiniere was part of a team of international researchers who found a new species of meat-eating dinosaur in north-western China.

He was also involved in the more recent excavation of a dinosaur fossil in the Karoo.

“The South African protocol for fossil discovery ensures that items of national (and global) significance are correctly removed from the ground, referenced and stored,” he says. 

“In principle, should a person find a dinosaur bone or other fossil on their property, they contact us at Wits and we apply for a permit from SAHRA – the South African Heritage Resources Agency – to excavate the item, and store it in an official catalogue and fossil repository,” he adds.

Wits University holds a number of fossil repositories, but so do other heritage resource agencies, such as Ditsong Museum.

“As an entity, the university or institution that plans to excavate the fossil makes a deal with the landowner – that the specimen will be preserved, protected and stored in perpetuity.”

But the best-case scenario is not how it always turns out.

While excavating a dinosaur skeleton in the Karoo earlier this year, the femur bone of the specimen was stolen.

The bone has not yet been recovered, and the theft has multiple implications for the rest of the excavation.

“As soon as any item is removed from the ground, it loses its stratigraphic context that would otherwise tell us more about the time and place the specimen was fossilised. The geological data around the item is lost and can’t ever be recaptured – unless the exact place where it was taken from is pointed out,” Choiniere explains.

“Fossils are national treasures and should be treated as such. They should be placed in collections and museums that guarantee access for all South Africans. What value does a fossil hold if it’s hidden away in some farmer’s dusty drawer? It has very little value on an open market relative to its scientific value,” he adds.

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