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Hominid/ape/primate fossils - Why arent they sold often?


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FF7_Yuffie

Hi 

 

Im wondering if there is a reason hominid fossils dont come up for sale much. I think all ive seen for sale was a misidentified bone and a bit of jaw.

 

Are they just not desirable? I can definitely see why some people wouldnt want them, so do sellers not get them just because theres no market.

 

Or are they just extremely rare?

 

Or other reasons, like most found end up being studied? I imagine even small, isolated bones would be of more scientific interest than an isolated dino bone.

 

Cheers

 

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Harry Pristis

 

   Sensitivity to those fossils.  I, too, am curious about why anyone feels that bones of long-dead human ancestors should be treated any differently than, say a sabre cat femur.  What is the source of the sensitivity to human ancestor bones?

   Human ancestors often enough didn't share that sensitivity when they cannibalized contemporaries, or carved long bones into flutes or decorated their temples and battlements with bones.

   What is the deep feeling that has emerged in modern humans?  Is it spirit belief?  Is it the  Christian resurrection story?  Is it the reminder of our own mortality (sabre cat bones are okay, but human bones are too familiar)?  Why are museums returning Native American bones to tribes for disposition?  Is this the original "woke" manifestation in modern humans?

   Kennewick Man, who was about 10,000 years old, was handed over to a doubtfully-related tribe for disposition out of cultural sensitivity.  Why are we culturally sensitive about Pleistocene human bones and not sensitive about sabre cat bones?

   I don't have any definitive answer . . . I'm just wondering if anyone here has a better answer. . . .

   Species chauvinism?  . . . Species affinity?  . . . Maybe.

   I think that, as human awareness expanded, new explanations for mysteries were required.  One such mystery was death.  The existence of an afterlife, a spiritual realm, offered relief from emotional pain and hope for something after death.  While this idea has primitive roots, it remains powerful today among large groups of humans.

   If there were a spiritual realm, there must be spirits.  Spirits might have influence in the life of survivors; and fear of, and hope for, that intervention would become established. This might be the foundation of deferential treatment of human remains:  Treat the remains respectfully because his spirit may be lurking nearby.  It also might be the foundation of organized religion -- to entreat positive spirit intervention and to placate upset spirits.

   I think that this idea of spirits in an afterlife is a significant element in our cultural sensitivity about human remains.  It's an inheritance from our primitive ancestors.  I say inheritance because there is a likely selective advantage for groups that believe in spirits.  But, that's a discussion for another thread.  

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Crusty_Crab

TL;DR: In the US, before engaging in the trade of human remains, you should really be familiar with any and all regulations. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/enforcement.htm states that pursuant to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act:   

A person who knowingly committs (sic) any of the following may be punished by imprisonment, a fine, or both:

1. Sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit the human remains of a Native American.

2. Sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit any Native American cultural item obtained in violation of NAGPRA.

To report a criminal violation of NAGPRA, contact your local FBI office.

 

The long version:

 

Speaking from an American perspective: the only documented hominid remains found in the Americas have belonged to our species: Homo sapiens. If you find a hominid remain here, it is almost certainly going to belong to our species. Do those remains belong to a contemporary individual? In the US, if you find the remains of any humanoid, you should leave the remains alone and immediately call 911. They'll likely then send a law enforcement response as well as a team from the coroners to decide if this is a victim of foul play, which would then trigger a law enforcement investigation. Perhaps they belong to an individual which the first nations have claimed ancestry with or perhaps even a historical "settler" where no foul play can be determined. In that case, it is very possible that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act may apply: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm This only applies to federal, tribal lands, and any other State or local agencies that receive federal funding. Suppose you clear all of these requirements and find the remains of an individual that does not trigger a law enforcement investigation. Was this a non-First Nations settler? There are very likely current descendants or relatives of that individual. Regardless, its clear that it is very likely there are contemporary descendants that hold those remains as sacred or dear and/or there are tribes that would claim ancestry with those remains. Our current societal norms would suggest that the disposition of human remains should conform with the wishes of their descendants.  

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Fossildude19

Rarity and scientific importance would probably be the main reasons I can think of for lack of a commercial trade in hominid remains.

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Harry Pristis

Crusty_Crab provided a partial answer to the OP's question; but, the world market is larger than North America.  To get to the real answer, we have to ask:  Why is there a NAGPRA law at all?  I've already provided my answer; do you have an alternative?

2 hours ago, Harry Pristis said:

 I think that this idea of spirits in an afterlife is a significant element in our cultural sensitivity about human remains.  It's an inheritance from our primitive ancestors.

 

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Many moons ago a hominid skull showed up in a well known rock shop in NYC. They donated it to The American Museum of Natural History. It belonged in a museum where it could be studied.

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siteseer

When I read the question, I didn't immediately think of Native American or other rather recent hominid remains going back through the Holocene and into into the latest Pleistocene.  Yes, those can have emotional significance because people can still have sort of s cultural memory connecting to it.  They can trace the tribe/group that far through stories and artifacts.  A tribe generally wants the remains to be reburied when they are found though scientists would learn more about their lives if they had some to study.  It's a tricky thing to treat someone's ancestor as a specimen because it seems like a form of disrespect.  Some people might not think it's a big deal unless it was someone more recent like their grandfather being dug up.  Others might say that feels like the same thing to them even if it's a partial skeleton from 10,000 years ago.

 

The original question includes apes and other primates and I can address that with the hominids in general.  Primates date back to the Early Paleocene within just a few million years of the extinction of the dinosaurs.  It seems primates originated either in Asia or North America but by the end of the Paleocene, they are known from Europe as well, spreading into Africa by the end of the Eocene.  You can find Late Paleocene and Eocene primate fossils for sale from Europe and North America.   However, the average American fossil hunter doesn't go to those sites because it's generally less-productive than a side trip to Kemmerer (fish quarries) or the Oligocene Badlands (and you might not find much in the Oligocene either).  Add to that the animals of the Eocene in general are less familiar and it's harder to find someone who can identify a tooth or a jaw section.  People like to know the name and pin it to an animal they know but the primates of that time are all extinct forms not directly related to anything living today though they were similar in form to modern lemurs or tarsiers.  In fact, primates nearly died out in North America at the end of the Eocene and became quite rare and localized in the Oligocene.  Depending on who you talk to, they died out  on this continent by the end of the epoch or the Early Miocene at best.  Primates sharply declined in number and diversity in Europe late in the Eocene as well, dying out there in the Early Oligocene.  Therefore, you don't see Oligocene primates for sale.

 

Primates survived in Asia and Africa but you don't see Oligocene-age fossils on the market from those continents.  The sites tend to be in remote areas and are apparently not very productive because even paleontologists don't go out there very often.  Perhaps the most productive area for Oligocene fossils in all of Africa is called the Fayum Depression in Egypt.  A great variety of fossils (Late Eocene to Early Oligocene) including some of the earliest-known apes are found there but Egypt doesn't allow the export of fossils.

 

You don't see Miocene fossils from Africa but some from China were hitting the market maybe 20 years ago before the government cracked down on that.  I didn't see any Miocene primate specimens from there. 

 

Of course, you're not going to see anything like Australopithecus or early Homo (Pliocene hominids) for sale (other than a cast) because the countries of origin have laws outlawing export just like Egypt does.  We hear about hominid finds in the news every year but that stuff is actually quite rare relative to other mammal fossils of the same deposit.

 

There were some Pleistocene teeth available from China that were sometimes sold as Homo erectus or Gigantopithecus but were apparently some kind of ape.  I haven't heard if anyone positively identified those teeth.  There weren't a lot of them out there.

 

A variety of Pleistocene fossils have come out of Indonesia.  I don't know what the export laws are there but petrified wood has freely left the country for years and I've heard about all the Carcharocles megalodon and other shark teeth that have recently come from there.  Anyway, in the late 90's, some Pleistocene mammal (and some crocodile) fossils from Java appeared at the Tucson shows.  I think they had showed up in Europe by that time as well.  You would see some kind of deer, water buffalo/bovid, hippo, rhino, Stegodon (extinct relative of elephants), and hyena teeth/jaw sections.  I heard that somebody had the top of a skull of Homo erectus at a show (known as "Java Man" from there) but never saw anything like that so I wonder it that was just another "fish story."  It wasn't a lot of stuff and I didn't see much for years after than but then I heard more was available a few years ago.

 

So yeah, you don't see primate stuff for sale mostly because it's either from remote areas and/or it's rare and the countries of origin happen to be places that don't allow export of fossils.

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This is a good time to talk about why important fossils need to be in museum or university collections. And the best reason is “access.”  By placing it there it becomes available to other scientists to study. A scientifically valuable specimen is not adding anything if it sits in a private collection. 

 

Hominid fossils are rare and very important. They need to be where they can be studied. And as far as I know early primate fossils are also quite rare. They certainly were not as common as mammoths or horses. 

 

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5 minutes ago, siteseer said:

 Anyway, in the late 90's, some Pleistocene mammal (and some crocodile) fossils from Java appeared at the Tucson shows.  I think they had showed up in Europe by that time as well.  You would see some kind of deer, water buffalo/bovid, hippo, rhino, Stegodon (extinct relative of elephants), and hyena teeth/jaw sections.  I heard that somebody had the top of a skull of Homo erectus at a show (known as "Java Man" from there) but never saw anything like that so I wonder it that was just another "fish story."  I

Maxilla and Mandible in NYC was the shop that ended up with Homo erectus skull cap and donated it to AMNH. It was more than a fish story.

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Crusty_Crab
2 hours ago, Harry Pristis said:

Crusty_Crab provided a partial answer to the OP's question; but, the world market is larger than North America.  To get to the real answer, we have to ask:  Why is there a NAGPRA law at all?  I've already provided my answer; do you have an alternative?

 

I apologize if my response may be construed as incomplete or "not the real answer", so let's try again. This only applies to Homo sapiens in the USA. 

 

Yes, this is the American (USA) legal perspective. Why Congress felt the need to enact such legislation is helpfully included in the introduction of the regulations:  https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2010-03-15/pdf/2010-5283.pdf From the background,  "The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (the Act) addresses the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony." This seems to suggest that there is an intrinsic right of peoples to determine what happens to their cultural patrimony. This does not address spirituality or belief in an afterlife.

 

We take it as a fundamental human right to be able to treat our dead the way that our established cultural practices demand. Congress has determined that this right has precedence over other considerations, such as scientific study. It is not my place to comment on the propriety of that, I would just say that all American citizens and visitors to the US are bound to respect and abide by our laws and regulations, irrespective of whether we agree with them. There is a line of philosophical debate that argues that how humans treat their dead differentiates us from animals: "It could be argued that it’s a violation of the dignity of the dead if we leave their bodies unburied to be eaten by animals because the dead had dignity while they were alive. Alternatively, it could be argued that we have to treat them with dignity because they still have dignity. Further, it could be claimed that the dead have to be treated with dignity because through such treatment we show reverence toward the God who has created them. Or it could be claimed that the dead have to be treated with dignity because this is a virtuous act that makes us better people for doing it."    https://philosophynow.org/issues/126/Our_Duty_to_the_Dead

 

 

Outside the USA, there may not be the same regulations pertaining to the remains of Homo sapiens. The philosophical questions about the fundamental right of peoples to determine the disposition of their patrimony still exist, as well as the questions about how we treat our dead. 

 

Regarding non-Homo sapiens hominids, these would not be found in the US. They may be found in other parts of the world, but they are so rare and of such scientific importance that every specimen should be available in a public institution for study and should not be monopolized in private collections. For example, the holotype of Denisovans is a tiny bone fragment and the reason for raising a new species was through molecular work, not through any morphology of the bone itself:  https://www.nature.com/articles/srep23559

 

 

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Harry Pristis
46 minutes ago, Crusty_Crab said:

. . . 

There is a line of philosophical debate that argues that how humans treat their dead differentiates us from animals: "It could be argued . . . ,"

  Thanks for the response.  I didn't bother to list the irrational arguments provided in your own quotation.  As a paleobiologist of whatever standing, you know that we ARE animals.  What differentiates us is a degree of awareness. 

  Culture is cumulative, and along with generation-after-generation of accumulating knowledge, we picked up some irrational ideas.  It could be argued, as I do, that many of those irrational ideas have to do with death, spirits, and a spirit world.  Thus, the uneasiness of dealing with remains of ancestors.

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siteseer
3 hours ago, erose said:

This is a good time to talk about why important fossils need to be in museum or university collections. And the best reason is “access.”  By placing it there it becomes available to other scientists to study. A scientifically valuable specimen is not adding anything if it sits in a private collection. 

 

Hominid fossils are rare and very important. They need to be where they can be studied. And as far as I know early primate fossils are also quite rare. They certainly were not as common as mammoths or horses. 

 

 

I would say the earliest primates like Purgatorius are rare though they've find more specimens in recent years.  No one has really tried to exploit that commercially anyway because they are tiny teeth found out in the middle of nowhere. 

 

By the Late Paleocene and Early Eocene, teeth and jaw sections might be considered common but skeletons are rare.  Few dealers offer Eocene mammals though there seems to be more interest these days. 

 

Primates become less diverse and less common in the Middle Eocene of North America.  They find lots of Late Eocene primate teeth and jaw sections in the Quercy Phosphorites of France (various sites in the Quercy area).

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siteseer
4 hours ago, erose said:

Many moons ago a hominid skull showed up in a well known rock shop in NYC. They donated it to The American Museum of Natural History. It belonged in a museum where it could be studied.

 

I forgot about that.  They closed the store years ago but Henry was still going to Tucson to hang out with friends the last time I went about 6 years ago.  He used to study mammals with AMNH so he would've recognized the rarity.

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FF7_Yuffie
9 hours ago, Harry Pristis said:

 Sensitivity to those fossils.  I, too, am curious about why anyone feels that bones of long-dead human ancestors should be treated any differently than, say a sabre cat femur.  What is the source of the sensitivity to human ancestor bones?

 

It is strange, I'd personally have no qualms about owning a hominid bone. But I'd feel it weird to have a more modern human bone, or even going back hundreds of years--I'd find it weird somehow. But an ancient hominid, wouldn't bother me. Makes me wonder what he cut off date would be to where it wouldn't feel strange. Pre-civilisation perhaps. Maybe that's the drawing point.

 

5 hours ago, erose said:

This is a good time to talk about why important fossils need to be in museum or university collections. And the best reason is “access.”  By placing it there it becomes available to other scientists to study. A scientifically valuable specimen is not adding anything if it sits in a private collection. 

 

Hominid fossils are rare and very important. They need to be where they can be studied. And as far as I know early primate fossils are also quite rare. They certainly were not as common as mammoths or horses. 

 

I don't know much about hominid fossils--but is that true for any and all? That they are noteworthy? I get that they are rare, but could a scientist really gleam much from an isolated bone or tooth--unless, of course, found in an entirely new area.

What would be the reason for early primate fossils being rarer? I would have expected they'd be fairly abundant. Could it just be down to them living in different areas where bones/remains didn't tend to fossilise?

 

5 hours ago, erose said:

Many moons ago a hominid skull showed up in a well known rock shop in NYC. They donated it to The American Museum of Natural History. It belonged in a museum where it could be studied.

Interesting. I will have a look into that. Was it public pressure that made them decide to donate it? Or, just not realising its importance initially.

 

5 hours ago, siteseer said:

There were some Pleistocene teeth available from China that were sometimes sold as Homo erectus or Gigantopithecus but were apparently some kind of ape.  I haven't heard if anyone positively identified those teeth.  There weren't a lot of them out there.

 

This rings a bell--I remember seeing a primate tooth from China maybe a year ago being sold as Lufengpithecus. 

 

 

5 hours ago, siteseer said:

So yeah, you don't see primate stuff for sale mostly because it's either from remote areas and/or it's rare and the countries of origin happen to be places that don't allow export of fossils.

 

Thanks for the info.

The few I have seen for sale, if I remember right, was a limb bone apaprently found in Europe (I posted it on here--it wasn't hominid anyway). The jaw bit, I can't remember where it was found. I also see a website selling a lemur fossil from France. It surprised me because I thought it would be of itnerest, but that explains it. I can see why many countries would restrict the export of these types of fossils.

 

Cheers

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siteseer

I don't think it's strange for the species. Homo sapiens, who named itself "wise man," to have a reverence for its own remains of either the recent or distant past.

 

 

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caterpillar
Everything related to human history is a sensitive subject. There is no official trade but many parts are sold on a parallel market like Egyptian or South American mummies to rich Asian or Russian collectors. During the Arab revolutions, many museums were looted and the parts sold on the black market.
Primate fossils are very rare and are very interested in scientists who do everything to keep them (I invite you to read the book on the story of Ida, the little primate discovered in Messel). There are therefore no beautiful parts on the official markets. You can just find some teeth from time to time.
 
 
 
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Harry Pristis
14 hours ago, siteseer said:

I don't think it's strange for the species. Homo sapiens, who named itself "wise man," to have a reverence for its own remains of either the recent or distant past.

Oh, PLEASE!  Doesn't that sound a bit pompous to you?  Your "wise" mankind has cannibalized, dismembered, scalped, and burned mummies for firewood, to name just a few disrespectful things.  But I am sure it was all done with reverence.   :rolleyes:

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siteseer
1 hour ago, Harry Pristis said:

Oh, PLEASE!  Doesn't that sound a bit pompous to you?  Your "wise" mankind has cannibalized, dismembered, scalped, and burned mummies for firewood, to name just a few disrespectful things.  But I am sure it was all done with reverence.   :rolleyes:

 

Hi Harry,

 

You missed my meaning.  It was that the same species arrogant enough to name itself "wise man" also values its remains above those of other animals.  We even have names for some parts of the human skeleton that are different from the names of the same parts of other mammals' skeletons (e.g. one element of the ankle in mammals is the astragulus but that same bone is called the "talus" only in humans)

 

Jess

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Crusty_Crab
On 8/3/2022 at 4:02 PM, Harry Pristis said:

  Thanks for the response.  I didn't bother to list the irrational arguments provided in your own quotation.  As a paleobiologist of whatever standing, you know that we ARE animals.  What differentiates us is a degree of awareness. 

  Culture is cumulative, and along with generation-after-generation of accumulating knowledge, we picked up some irrational ideas.  It could be argued, as I do, that many of those irrational ideas have to do with death, spirits, and a spirit world.  Thus, the uneasiness of dealing with remains of ancestors.

If you would be so kind as to specify what arguments you find irrational and why, so that we may have a civilized discussion. The irony is that I actually agree with you on what you've said. I recognize that Homo sapiens are fundamentally animals, with all of the fallacies implied. We are no more special than other animals. I just want to make sure that people are aware of the laws and regulations of the US since most of us are citizens/residents of such.

 

23 hours ago, Harry Pristis said:

Oh, PLEASE!  Doesn't that sound a bit pompous to you?  Your "wise" mankind has cannibalized, dismembered, scalped, and burned mummies for firewood, to name just a few disrespectful things.  But I am sure it was all done with reverence.   :rolleyes:

 

Please be mindful of your language, especially anything that might be interpreted as sarcastic in an inflammatory fashion. We are all united in our love of science and fossils/paleontology. @siteseer has provided good faith, informative responses, and I think it is good form to respond to their responses in a reciprocal manner. 

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Harry Pristis

As I recall, all of those arguments cited in your quotation lack evidence to support them.

 

If you would be so kind as to specify what language I need to be more mindful of, we can have a more fruitful conversation.  I guess you think that @siteseer needs your protection from my irony, but I think he's already demonstrated that he's capable of defending himself.  Do you plan to arrogate responsibilities of moderator now?

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Ethics was my least favourite during my philosophy degrees, much preferring metaphysics. That said, my own view seems to be tainted by an anthropocentric bias for self-serving reasons that don't hold up to the cold light of objective analysis. I have no fundamental sentimentality about the human primate. I see them as they are: capable of wondrous works, but also of ghastly atrocities. We share that with chimps who will perform a raid for no other reason than the pleasure of it. 

 

I am here looking at my beloved cat, who I am sure has endured enough of my anthropocentric projection to "humanize" his existence. He hunts and kills, bringing those kills to me on the instinct that I don't do my own hunting at the grocery store. He purrs to manipulate me into petting him, and kneads my body out of an infant instinct of wanting to draw milk, but now as a gesture of trust that I am like his mother. I respect his true animality as I also am cognizant of my own in being an animal with drives.  That I can defer some forms of gratification or not act on instinct to kill someone for increasing my chances at mating does not make me "superior" in any way. That I have language and logic does not make me "better" than dolphins who also have language and their own logic (if not more complex brain structures than us). 

 

The history of philosophy tells us some very self-serving tales. Protagorus proclaimed that "man is the measure of all things." Yes, that is true insofar as having a biased perspective that is central to the human primate, just like saying earth is the centre of the universe. 

 

From that cold light of objectivity (tainted perhaps because we designed it) humans are animals. We have little reservation about eating them, raising them for food (vegans and vegetarians aside). We function as equally parasitic on our environment as any other animal to survive except that we can change our environment to suit us -- something most other animals cannot do.

 

What Harry tells us is that there are taboos and a cachet about human remains. He is right that those guard rails are of our own design. For all our logic and ethics to justify the things we do, we cannot find those reflected in nature. There are cultural issues with respect to First Nations people we probably ought to respect, but that is entirely us, not science or nature. When we strip the anthropocentricity and sentimentality, there is not much left. We developed elaborate death rituals because death scares us. But, as someone like Heidegger tells us, the most authentic being is one who undersatands that death is our only real guarantee, and to pretend otherwise is to live inauthentically as people immerse themselves in careers, entertainment, gossip, etc. 

 

If you put a gun to my head and asked if there was something intrinsically special about the human primate, I would likely sputter about some of the great things we have achieved, which matter nought in nature. At the end of the day, I am animal who makes choices that serve my needs and that of my species. That doesn't make them objectively "true" choices as something that protects the world, as if any other animal in nature is looking our for that. 

 

Socrates tells us, "know thyself!" and part of that is not gilding the lily of what we truly are. I accept and embrace that I am just another animal, cloaked with language and other instruments of reason. I have no sentimentality about my own life or its remains, nor do I subscribe to a supersensible realm where our consciousness continue to exist. If I act in a way that is considered "good," I do so because it makes sense for me to do so, not out of some reward or punishment in an afterlife. 

 

For me, I very much align myself with Harry's way of thinking on the matter. 

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Harry Pristis

@Kane 

Wow!  Thoughtful and entertaining!  If only I could write like that!  Thank you.   :default_clap2:

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Ethics or aesthetics aside, most countries with substantial hominid fossil records have strict fossil patrimony laws that protect those fossils from export. More recent material also falls under archaeological patrimony laws, which are even more extensive. So there just aren't a lot of countries where you could expect to find human fossils that aren't covered by these laws.

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Harry Pristis
15 minutes ago, jdp said:

Ethics or aesthetics aside, most countries with substantial hominid fossil records have strict fossil patrimony laws that protect those fossils from export. More recent material also falls under archaeological patrimony laws, which are even more extensive. So there just aren't a lot of countries where you could expect to find human fossils that aren't covered by these laws.

  jdp says it in summary, but it is getting tedious to read about "laws" that make access to human ancestor remains problematic.  Does it not occur to ask: "Why do we have such laws, when possession or trade of other vertebrate remains typically are not sanctioned in the same manner?" 

  I am interested in diving much deeper into human evolutionary history, much earlier than laws.  I am talking about the evolution of ideas, our perceptions of the world.

  You don't have to agree with my theorizing, but unless you address it, we are talking past one another.  Here is my idea (presented in more detail earlier in this thread) in summary:

  "This might be the foundation of deferential treatment of human remains:  Treat the remains respectfully because his spirit may be lurking nearby.  It also might be the foundation of organized religion -- to entreat positive spirit intervention and to placate upset spirits.

  "I think that this idea of spirits in an afterlife is a significant element in our cultural sensitivity about human remains.  It's an inheritance from our primitive ancestors." 

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bcfossilcollector

Harry, with all due respect, I think you may be underestimating the power of the sentimental nature inherent in much of humanity. It is an aspect or rather a defining characteristic of what makes us human. Along with being sentient, highly adaptive and aware of our own mortality we tend to regard our ancestors and   relatives in such a way that the thought that they may end up in a “collection” would make most quite upset. I think this reaction would be true for both believers in the supernatural and those who do not share those beliefs.  The further we go back in time the more abstract these perceptions might be but in the end those feelings still exist. By the way I very much agree with the points made by Kane and do not disagree with your perspective on humans and our place as animals amongst other animals. 

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