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A view during Virgin Galactic's second private astronaut flight, ‘Galactic 03.’

The fossils travelled to the edge of space onboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, VSS Unity.Credit: Virgin Galactic

On a bright Friday morning last week, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft travelled 88 kilometres above Earth to the edge of space. On board were two Virgin Galactic pilots and an astronaut instructor, three astronaut customers — and remains from two ancient human relatives that lived hundreds of thousands of years ago in southern Africa.

The crew of the VSS Unity — along with the hominin remains — landed safely an hour later. But the fossils’ journey has drawn extraordinary rebuke from archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists and other researchers. They say it was an unethical publicity stunt that put priceless hominin fossils at risk, which raises questions about the protection of cultural heritage in South Africa, where a government agency signed off on the mission.

“To treat ancestral remains in such a callous, unethical way — to blast them into space just because you can — there’s no scientific merit in this,” says Robyn Pickering, a geologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Precious bones

Other fossils — including dinosaur bones — have been taken into space on various missions since the 1980s, but these are the first ancient hominin remains to leave Earth. They belong to Australopithecus sediba, which lived around 2 million years ago, and the roughly 250,000-year-old Homo naledi. Both species were found near Johannesburg by teams led by Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist now at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC.

In July, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) in Cape Town granted Berger an export permit to transport an Au. sediba shoulder bone and a H. naledi finger bone to New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic’s spaceport is located, and aboard the company’s craft. The fossils were carried on the flight by Tim Nash, a South African businessman who was one of the private astronauts.

Berger’s application said that scientific studies might be conducted on the fossils, but that this was not the main aim of the request. “Major media partners will assist in using this once in a lifetime opportunity to bring awareness to science, exploration, human origins and South Africa and its role in understanding Humankind’s shared African ancestry,” the application said.

The complete hand of Homo naledi, shown in palmar (left) and dorsal (right) views.

A Homo naledi hand, seen from the front (left) and back (right).Credit: Peter Schmid/Wits University

Pickering, who was part of the team that determined the age of Au. sediba1, says that such justifications don’t outweigh the risks of spaceflight, including the possibility of losing or damaging the remains. The shoulder bone is especially valuable because it was the first Au. sediba fossil to be discovered, and is the reference, or ‘type specimen’, that defines the species.

Yonatan Sahle, an archaeologist at the University of Cape Town, says that sending African fossils to space reminds him of colonial-era and neo-colonial research practices, in which white, mostly European and American researchers bent African institutions to their will. “As someone who is African and who is based in an African institution, this is basically a perpetuation of the past, very ugly aspects of palaeoanthropological research.”

‘Promotional benefit’

In response to researchers’ criticisms of the mission, SAHRA official Ben Mwasinga, said in a media statement that the agency was “satisfied that the promotional benefit derived was appropriately weighted against the inherent risk of travel of this nature”.

In a press release issued by the University of Witwatersrand, where the fossils are stored, Berhnard Zipfel, a palaeoanthropologist and the university’s curator of collections, said that the fossils were chosen to go on the mission partly because they had been extensively documented in 3D scans, casts and photographs. (Zipfel did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.)

If fossils being well documented means it’s acceptable to put them at risk, that could set a dangerous precedent, says Rachel King, an archaeologist at University College London who studies cultural-heritage policies in southern Africa. “If I document one of South Africa’s World Heritage Sites, could we then bulldoze it and put up a shopping mall?” she asks.

South Africa has long been considered a leader among African countries in its approach to protecting cultural heritage, and King was surprised that SAHRA granted Berger’s request to send the fossils aboard a private spacecraft. “What are regulators for, if they’re going to let someone do this?” She says. “It’s potentially a pretty big thing, and a pretty big shift.”

A representative for the University of Witwatersrand referred Nature to Berger. Berger did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.

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