A Bone in Hand Is Worth Ten in a Book

By Elen Feuerriegel

Rising Star Expedition Advance Scientist Elen Feuerriegel of Australian National University. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Rising Star Expedition Advance Scientist Elen Feuerriegel of Australian National University. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

In the final week of my stay in South Africa, I had a dual purpose: to help clean and preserve the Rising Star fossil material, and to collect data for my PHD thesis from the specimens in the Philip V. Tobias fossil collection.

For me, this was my first real experience studying firsthand the fossils that are the primary icons of my field. It was a breathtaking opportunity. As students, we generally view fossil hominins only through the lenses of our predecessors, those fortunate enough to have been able to study these jealously guarded remains directly.

Tabula Rasa

The fossils and the work conducted on them are intrinsically linked–they are part and counterpart of a complex totality, two modalities of scientific effort, equal and entangled. It is a continuum in which I was now an active participant and it deals with a story that has been unfolding for at least 2 million years.

Sitting amongst the PVT collection, a velvet-lined tray of forearm bones attributed to Australopithecus africanus on the bench in front of me, I found myself seriously challenged. I found I wanted to return to tabula rasa–the blank slate–and in a sense I had to, in order to abandon the interpretations of my intellectual mothers and fathers and view the material with new eyes.  I had to really see the fossils for myself–this  is why open access to fossil collections is so important.

Even before excavations began, it was of value to actually handle modern bones and learn firsthand how they responded to different kinds of stress and trauma. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Entities and Imprints

Neither the fossils nor the work resulting from their study can be viewed in a vacuum, nor can one be considered more important than the other. And yet so much scholarly work must be conducted without access to critical primary fossil specimens. We have to work on casts or (if we’re lucky) 3D scans and even then it’s not clear to what extent data gathered from these things is equivalent to data gathered from the real thing. To my mind actual entities will always trump their imprints (though the imprints have their place and utility).

Nevertheless, between working on the RS material and the PVT fossil collection, it was easy to start drawing connections (and disconnections) between the hominins of Rising Star and the fossil material from Sterkfontein and Malapa that I may not have made had I only been dealing with these populations in the abstract.

I think this, more than anything, drove home the importance of open access to fossils for me. Allowing other researchers to study the primary specimens has the potential to reveal connections that may not have been immediately obvious. Returning to the blank slate is an important step that reduces the possibility of building on an error.

Open Up and Say A-ha!

Opening up access to fossils is vital to the future of palaeoanthropology. By locking down the fossils to all but a select few and allowing the field to be dominated by their interpretations we run the risk of stifling innovation and serendipity. It also risks creating an intellectual bottleneck.

James Clerk Maxwell once said “thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” Standing on the shoulders of giants is no longer enough, we need uninhibited access to the fossil record to continue their story.


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