Fossil and data access in palaeoanthropology

A recent article in Scientific American has generated a lot of buzz in the anthropology blogosphere. The piece discusses the problems of accessing human fossil remains, reopening the discussion on how open anthropology needs to be. The reason why data acquisition is such a problem in palaeoanthropology is captured in the opening sentence of an article Stephen Jay Gould and David Pilbeam wrote for Science:


“Human paleontology shares a peculiar trait with such disparate subjects as theology and extraterrestrial biology: it contains more practitioners than objects for study.”

– Stephan J. Gould and David Pilbeam

Whenever supply cannot keep up with demand, you can be sure that problems will follow. (Many parents have learned this to their chagrin, when they find out that the Christmas toy du jour, their beloved child so wanted, is sold out.) Each newly unearthed fragment of human bone represents yet another valuable piece in the ever-growing jigsaw puzzle that is our evolutionary history. The study of primary data is of prime importance in paleoanthropology. As a result, a conflict arises, due to the need to study fossils and the limited access placed upon them. Restricted access occurs for a number of reasons, ranging from valid concerns over the fragility of a particular specimen, to scientists reaping the benefits of a research monopoly.

There is an unwritten rule in palaeoanthropology that the discoverers of a fossil have the exclusive rights to publish the initial monograph describing their specimen. Palaeoarchaeologists invest a lot of resources, time and effort in recovering fossils. They will often literally risk body and limb. Dehydration, food poisoning, snake bites, diseases and infections are but some of the hazards field archaeologists face. When they are not digging they are often engaged in the unenviable task of writing grants for their projects. It is understandable that they are wary of outsiders who expect free access to their hard-won prizes.

Ancient fossils usually come out of the ground highly fragmented and in a poor state of preservation. Much time is required to clean, preserve and reconstruct them before conducting a phylogenetic analysis. While many people have focused on the fact that certain specimens have taken an exhorbitant amount of time to describe, thus holding up the process of peer validation, it must also be kept in mind that these represent only a small fraction of the total human fossil record. While it of the utmost importance to make fossils available to outside investigators in a timely fashion, it is perhaps not the most fruitful or constructive area in which to be directing our attention.

Conflicts arise between researchers who want to access fossil material and curators who are genuinely concerned about the wear and tear that these fossils have endured through repeated handling. Curators will often direct researchers to others who have already measured the material in question, to avoid the redundant repetition of measurements. It is often at this point that researchers can come up against a brick wall, with peers who are unwilling to relinquish their valued data. Like the fossils themselves, unique data is a precious commodity and alas is necessary for publication. For good or for ill, peer-reviewed publications are placed in high regard in the anthropological world. Its role when it comes to job-seeking or tenure cannot be underestimated. An incredible amount of data has been collected through the years on ancient human remains but they are rarely put in the public domain. A noteworthy exception is the data on some 3,000 skulls from 17 worldwide populations, measured and made freely available by the eminent anthropologist William W. Howells (pdf file). The Howells’ dataset is perhaps that man’s most lasting legacy, at least in the sheer number of times his data have been used and referenced. Similarly, we need to place great value on other researchers who make their data available and this should be taken into consideration in matters of career advancement. At a minimum, the sharing of data should be deemed equivalent to research publication.

Positive steps have been taken in the ensure more data is made available. The US National Science Foundation encourage applicants to make provisions to make data available after the research has been completed. The NSF states that:

    It expects investigators to share with other researchers, at no more than incremental cost and within a reasonable time, the data, samples, physical collections and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of the work.


Anthropologists who fail to comply with these recommendations may have subsequent grant proposals turned down on these grounds. There is an ever-growing number of high quality casts and 3D images of fossils becoming available. Taphonomic processes may deform the fossilised bone and filling in gaps has often required a liberal amount of guesswork. 3D images often allow for better reconstructions of the original specimens, due to the ability to interpolate absent regions and more readily pinpoint and correct deformation. Research centres have woken up to the fact that collaborative projects tend to have a greater synergy due to their symbiotic nature. For palaeoanthropology to become a truly open discipline, it will not only need researchers to be more freehanded with their data, but will require funding agencies, universities and research centres to incentivise such actions.

Related reading
Fossil access editorial @ John Hawks weblog.

Science Suffers From The Idiots At Scientific American @ Anthropology.net.

Take your time @ A Primate of Modern Aspect.

Delson et al. Databases, data access, and data sharing in paleoanthropology: First steps. Evol. Anthropol. (2007) vol. 16 (5).

Gibbons. Glasnost for Hominids: Seeking Access to Fossils. Science (2002) vol. 297 pp. 1464-1468.

Mafart. Human fossils and paleoanthropologists: a complex relation. Journal of Anthropological Sciences (2008) vol. 86 pp. 201-204.

Pilbeam and Gould. Size and Scaling in Human Evolution. Science (1974) vol. 186 ( 4167), 892-901.

Tattersall and Schwartz. Is paleoanthropology science? Naming new fossils and control of access to them. Anat Rec (2002) vol. 269 (6) pp. 239-41.

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Above photo by Simon Strandgaard under creative commons license.

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