The Ethics of Hominids: A Discussion of Politics and Power in Human Research

Around 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form and establish an evolutionary process, eventually leading to the modern human. The first humans evolved in East Africa 2.5 million years ago and were only recently discovered in the past century. Pieces of our evolutionary puzzle and human evolutionary timeline began to come together with the emergence of paleontology and the discovery of fossils in Africa.

The  discovery of fossils combined with disciplines of research in history, biology, forensic anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Palenotology is thus an intersectional discipline on many levels of theory. The importance of paleontology is both historically relevant but also culturally significant. The process of fossil research did not come without a price; many evolutionary discoveries have included social factors that affected the fate of research. In this section I will explain major events in paleontological exploration, and how socio-political events have affected our discovery and understanding of early human history.

The Politics of Fossil Hunting

These 1.7 million year old remains were found in the African Koobi Fora research sites.
Koobi Fora is a region of paleoanthropological sites in northern Kenya. Fossils were found in this region dating back to 2 million years ago.

Power relations in science have an incredibly large impact on research. Richard Leakey is a Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist, in addition to being a politician. He found fossils in Koobi Fora of Homo habilis skulls that lived 2 million years ago. His face in the paleoanthropologist community has had large consequences on research projects done, primarily in Kenya. Richard Leakey is an incredibly successful fossil hunter. His fame and publicity had begun with discovering fossils on the eastern shore and rich fossil beds at Koobi Fora. He and his team from the National Museum of Kenya uncovered bones of early humans dating back to 1 million to 2 million years. Leakey became the director of the National Museum of Kenya and therefore could have his pick of fossil sites to work on. Leaky and his teams continued to complete research in Kenya, having a small monopoly over the sites.

Martin Pickford in 1995 published a book called Richard E. Leakey: Master of Deceit. The publication accused Leakey of plotting fame and fortune through his successes. “The book was just the beginning of the tireless campaign to circumvent Leaky and to end the National Museums of Kenya’s monopoly on paleontology research in Kenya” (168). The government and National Museums, in addition to having authority over research permits, also had considerable monopoly over the property of fossils. Richard Leakey had high political importance with the National Museum of Kenya, therefore making his access to permits easier. Research in modern paleoanthropology advanced to include government and public life in discovery processes; additionally, creating a new use for museum exhibits and preservation.


Donald Johanson and Tim White discovered the Lucy skeleton in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974. Hadar is a village in Ethiopia located in a rift valley and hot and dry throughout the year; ideal conditions for archeological digs. While Johanson was conducting his last trip to the Ethiopian site, a new leader named Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the leader of the military leaders that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. A civil war began in Ethiopia, making it too dangerous for Americans to continue their research in the country. Access to fossils varies depending on geographic location. Ethiopia is an ideal location for uncovering fossilized animals and hominids. However, research in the country strongly depends on the current social conflicts around the sites.

The Lucy skeleton was positioned together in an upright stance, providing evidence for a homo sapien ancestry.
Lucy is the nickname of one of the oldest known human ancestors. Her name was chosen because “Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds” by the Beatles was playing in the research site during the dig.

The First Hominid

The discovery of Lucy revolutionized the anthropological world, providing immense factual evidence for Darwin’s evolution theory. Johanson and his team found the remains of 40 percent of the hominid skeleton. While restructuring the skeleton, the model formed a position of an upright stance. The successive fossil formations proved that there were early humans that walked upright and progressed in both structural and cognitive evolution.

This discovery introduced a new understanding of evolutionary processes and what our closest ancestors looked and acted like. When she was discovered, Lucy was perceived as the oldest direct ancestor of modern humans. “A. afarensis took us one small step closer to that common ancestor we share with chimpanzees. We knew we were genetically incredibly close to chimpanzees, with the last common ancestor we shared with them estimated to be around six million years ago. Lucy had closed a gap in our knowledge.” This statement is by Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, a prominent member of the Lucy team. The discovery of Lucy was a turning point for understanding human evolution and led to many more missions to find our ancestral families.

Civil Unrest in Africa

A team researching along the Awash River in Ethiopia discovered new fossils of teeth and jaw fragments in 1994. The fossil remains date back to the earliest known hominid, which was alive 4.4 million years ago. These discoveries were tremendous. However, they did not come without a cost. In the team’s first field season working along the eastern side of the Awash River, they got caught in a conflict between the Afar and the bordering Issa tribe.  Gunshots hit their fuel barrels and they aborted their research.

Civil unrest and research relocation is not uncommon in paleoanthropology. Expeditions move and vary depending on the stability of countries and their regions. In the mid 1900s, Yves Coppens searched for fossils in the Djura Desert in Chad. Coppens is a renowned French paleontologist and paleoanthropologist and a co-discoverer of lucy. Yayo was discovered by Coppens’ wife in 1961. Yayo is the top part of a skull and face of the first hominid found in Chad. Coppens believed the fossil to be part of Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of humans. Coppens’ work in Chad was also disturbed by social unrest. Civil war broke out between the northern Muslim tribes and the government, which was dominated by the non-Muslim Saudi groups in the south. Ghad soon fell into a pattern of military lockdowns and research was temporarily discontinued.

The Evolution of Man

Jaw and teeth remains discovered in Chad.
Michel Brunet and his research team found fossiles named “the southern ape”, dating back to 3.6 million years ago.

Michel Brunet, a vertebrate paleontologist, tracked the migration of large land mammals in central Africa. Inspired by Charles Darwin and his studies, Brunets specialized in researching evidence for human evolution. Brunet wanted to try to answer the question “from where homo sapiens come from”. His questions were answered in Chad in 1995. He explored the shores of Lake Chad and the terrain near the border with Chad. He was eager to push north into Chad, to survey the fossils along the old lakebed of the much larger Magalake Chad, existing millions of years ago. But constant warfare made it too dangerous to continue in the north. In 1992, there was a break in civil unrest that allowed Burnet and his team to uncover a partial jaw of an australopithecine dating 3.5 million years ago, describing it as a cousin of Lucy, the earliest human species.

The jawbone named Australopithecus bahrelghazali was a phenomenon because early hominids had previously only been found in eastern Africa and South Africa. The single jawbone proved that hominids ranged from both eastern and western Africa 3.5 million years ago.  The discovery was groundbreaking and changed the geography of early hominids and their migration. Exhibitions like these are incredibly amazing because warfare may have continued in the area, making it impossible for Brunet’s discovery and further expeditions in the area.

 Permits: the Protection of Fossils

Ethiopia, in addition to its civil unrest, restricted field permits for researchers, beginning in 1982. Ethiopia had numerous fossils of hominids and artifacts that have been found and redistributed globally to different laboratories and museums. The government realized the importance of the fossils and thus wanted to regulate the removal of these fossils. The fossils are unique to Ethiopia’s history. Therefore, regulations were established so that these discoveries would be formally recognized as the property of the country and could not be removed without special permission.

Kenya enforced antiquities laws stating that the National Museums of Kenya held authority to approve or reject paleontology research permits before the government issued access to sites. Fossils that had been removed in the 1970s were returned to Africa not in the condition that they had left. Fossils taken out of Ethiopia in the 1970s were returned, some never examined and still in crates that had never been opened. Many fossils were broken and damaged during transport. The new regulations explicitly stated that no fossils were to be removed from Ethiopia. The removal and return of these fossils resulted in much damage and neglect to study what had been discovered. This was a historical tragedy. The fossils that were rediscovered from other museums were ultimately used to compare to new fossils that had been found in other parts of Africa. The newly discovered fossils and rediscovered fossils were examined together to compare evolutionary traits.

The National Museum in Kenya holds artifacts from all over Kenya, also called "the birth place of humanity".
Exhibits in the National Museum of Kenya include fossils dating back to two million years old. Kenya is known as the “birth place of humanity” because of all the palentologic finds.

Field Ethics

A fossil dating back 4.4 to 4.2 million years ago.
This species named Australopithecus afarensis were found in the middle Awash valley in Ethiopia. Their features stand up straight and have primitive properities.

Permits for individuals and their teams is a recurring theme in paleontology. Researchers are on strict guidelines of where they can dig, therefore changing the discoveries of fossils accordingly. On April 13, 2000, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a graduate student, announced in a meeting of paleoanthrothologists, the discovery of the first fossil of Ardipithecus ramidus dating from 4.4 million years. Gerhard Weber quickly interjected, protesting that him and his team had the permits to work in the Gedamitu region, which included Gailili, where the fossil had been found. Problems with permits and the right to areas are not uncommon as the field has developed into a larger research capital.

The field of paleopathology is highly independent, which causes issues in ethical research. Professionals in research agree that it is unethical to search for fossils on other researcher’s sites. However, permits in developing nations can unintentionally overlap boundaries. In the case of Gailili, the Middle Awash project members would suggest that Seidler knew he was moving onto the Haile-Selassies site. But in a letter to Nature shortly after Hailes-Selassie’s allegations in San Antonion, Seidler would protest vehemently that he obtained his permit legally and transparently.

These permits and restrictions became coveted for all researchers passionate about finding their own discoveries. In 1995, an Ethiopian graduate student named Sileshi Semaw accused American paleoanthropologist Don Johanson and his team of encroaching on a fossil site called Gona. Semaw had a permit to this site and Johanson supposedly did not. The site bordered Hadar, where Johanson had found Lucy, so the dispute boiled down to both teams holding overlapping excavation permits for the same site.

Neocolonialist Paleoanthropology

The controversy was incredibly significant as both a trial of ethics and professional power. When Semaw announced her statement against Johanson, Johanson and his team were some of the most prominent anthropologists in the world, after the discovery of lucy. Semaw accused him of claim-jumping and fossil theft after Johansson’s team had allegedly taken hominoid teeth from a site that Semaw had been excavating for 2 years. This trial of ethics created a chain reaction that was both immediate and intense.

Johanson denied these allegations. However, the underlying problem became clear, there were no clear ethics for this modern research field. Ethiopian’s leading paleontologist, Berhane Asfaw, declared that “neocolonialist paleoanthropologists” would not be tolerated in Ethiopia. The dispute was ultimately defused because both parties were issued permits by the Ethiopian government and there were no clear separations in the boundaries. However, this marked a significant foundation for further expeditions and the importance of boundaries and ethical consideration.

A New Code of Ethics

In addition to ethics of permits, paleoanthropology also has unwritten ethical guidelines for individuals and their success. Modern paleopathology is a field of teamwork rather than individual success. Tim White wrote an article reviewing these guidelines. He denied the legality of claiming to find a fossil when a team member did and declared that no fossils should be stolen from another team’s site. These were previously unwritten codes of ethics on sites that were often broken due to selfish activities. Individuals making a name for themselves is important in the research field, but creates conflict between teamwork and personal gain.

The classification and security of artifacts is arguably the most important part of research after fossils are discovered. The theft of fossils or evidence in any sense has intense consequences if accused. Martin Pickford, a graduate student in 1974, found a molar in Kenya while he was mapping the terrain of the Tugen Hills. The tooth was aged to be 6 million years old. Pickford in 1885 visited the National Museum of Kenya to study notebooks from fossil sites in Uganda.

Pickford asked Leakey if he could look at these notebooks and took them out of the museum so he could have them photocopied. The next day, July 3, Leakey wrote Pickford a letter charging him with attempting to steal documents. The letter also banned him from the museums’ research facilities. The ban effectively meant banishment from ever working in Kenya. Due to a small sequence of events, Pickford was charged with theft and banned from working at the museum and on site in Kenya. This banishment was a disturbance in the paleoanthropological community and reiterates the importance of power in scientific institutions.

Anthropological Significance

Science operating on the ground is an interdisciplinary field that is highly affected by human relations. Social factors are incredibly important in the institutions, politics, and ethics of discovery. Paleontology combines many fields of research and has a complicated history of ethics and human conflict. It is interesting to note the importance of modern social agendas and the role it has played in uncovering significant parts of our past generations. In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, we discovered a relationship between successive fossil worlds. This progressive development connected paleontology to the study of the earth and planet, and in turn was interwoven with global socio-cultural relationships and the ethics of fossilized discovery.

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