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For Sale: A Piece of Human History

22 May 1997 (All day)
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The Internet has been a boon to science, but paleoanthropologists surfing the Web last week got an unpleasant surprise: A site called Fossilnet is advertising 20,000-year-old human skulls and even older human jaws for sale online. Scientists fear that such sales could send valuable scientific specimens into private collections.

Paleontologists are well aware of the brisk trade in fossils. But researchers and dealers alike say that this is one of the most visible instances to date of the sale of ancient human bones. For $28,000, buyers can pick up a Cro-Magnon skull, complete with 11 teeth, and a jaw labeled Neandertal has already sold for $5700. "This is scientific material--not works of art to be distributed like Renoirs," says paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. "It should be in reputable institutions of learning, available to the scientific community."

The dealer who runs Fossilnet, Jim Wyatt of Garland, Texas, says he purchased the fossils in February from a European dealer at the world's biggest fossil mart, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Fossil Show in Arizona. That dealer told Science, which reports the story in tomorrow's issue, that the bones were among those excavated in the 1920s and '30s from caves in the Balzi Rossi region in Liguria, Italy, by an Italian named Frederic Zambelli Hosmer. He apparently sold the fossils before strict European laws governing the disposal of excavated material came into effect. In the United States, paleontological materials are not covered by antiquities laws, which apply only to artifacts, says Smithsonian paleobiologist Bill DiMichele.

As for authenticity, Wyatt relies on documentation supplied by his wholesaler, who he says is highly reputable. (He identified that dealer only on the condition that Science not publish his name.) But anthropologists warn buyers to be wary. Judging from photos at the Web site, paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London says a "Neandertal" frontal bone, listed as "sold" for $8700, appears to lack the characteristic double-arched brow ridge of Neandertals; he says a left mandible also looks too modern. But, because no one can be sure the bones aren't authentic, says Stringer, "it's very bad that they're being sold this way when they actually may have some important information."