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A fossil’s place is in the museum

Pre-historic plants and animal cannot remain in the hands of amateurs

Fossils are the remains or vestiges of animals or plants preserved in stone, deposited before the beginning of the current era, that is, over 12,000 years ago. They are usually bones, teeth or shells, but eggs, tracks, impressions and silicified wood may be found. Using this material, scientists have built a scientific framework, with the objective of describing life on Earth during past times. The fossils also make it possible to determine the relative age of the stone in which they are found. So, these objects, which used to be regarded as nature’s jokes, have made possible the emergence of two disciplines in the ambit of sciences of the earth, paleontology and stratigraphy. Moreover, fossils made it possible to provide a sound basis to support the theory of evolution. As it can be seen, this is irreplaceable material to be able to tell the story of life on Earth.

Brazilian legislation in force says that the fossil-bearing deposits are the property of the nation and may only be explored with the prior authorization and the supervision of the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM). In addition, it lays down that museums and similar scientific institutions are not subject to this authorization and supervision. The mining code that regulates the whole activity of the exploitation of minerals in Brazilian subsoil does not therefore deal with the extraction of fossils. The purpose of this legislation is to say that fossils, despite being taken from the subsoil, cannot be treated as an economical good; they are regarded as the responsibility of museums and other scientific institutions; that is to say, they have become items of scientific interest and fall within the scope of researchers. In other words, they have won intrinsic cultural worth.

Everything would be all right if it were actually like this. The fossils would be collected by researchers and deposited with scientific institutions to be studied. But many of them have become collectors’ items for individuals and amateurs. This seems to be a habit that dates back to prehistoric times, as fossil shells have already been found arranged next to human skeletons, in graves of Homo neanderthalensis . In Brazil, the fossils that most attract the attention of collectors are fish, reptiles and insects from the Chapada do Araripe, particularly in Ceará, the mesosaurs from the Irati formation in the Rio Claro region of São Paulo, and fossilized wood from Rio Grande do Sul.The hope is that there will be consensus amongst the amateur collectors that the scientific importance of the fossil should come first, and that the specimens should be well conserved and protected. Many of them call for care, and will only be properly conserved at institutions set up for this purpose. The right place for a fossil is in a museum or a paleontological collection.

Fossils, attractive ornot, easy to conserve or in need of special care, big or microscopic, are studied, given names, often associated with toponymy or figures from Brazilian science. They are shown in displays to promote science and are used for education at various levels of knowledge. That is why they are not mere collectors’ items, but are essentially cultural objects that need to be protected and conserved.

Director of the Museum of the Sciences of the Earth of the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM)