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Diógenes de Almeida Campos: Official stones and bones

Paleontologist affirms that Brazil could be as important as China and criticizes fossil contraband

léo ramosBorn in the state of Bahia, in the town of Irará, he has spent his career in Rio de Janeiro since the end of the decade of the 1960s, Diógenes de Almeida Campos is one of the national pillars of paleontology. He is the head of the Earth Sciences Museum of the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM), which is situated in a beautiful old building next to Praia Vermelha beach, in Rio de Janeiro, but what he truly enjoys is going out into the field in search of the fossils of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and other vertebrates. At sixty one years of age, highly active, he frequently publishes articles on the reptiles of the Cretaceous period, which lived between 144 million and 65 million years ago, many of them having come from the Chapada do Araripe plateau, situated between the States of Ceará, Pernambuco and Piauí.

Campos likes to give Brazilian names, of Indian origin, to the new species that he discovers, such as the pterosaurs Tapejara imperator and Anhangüera blittersdorff, both discovered fourhanded with an ex-doctoral student, Alexander Kellner, from the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), who became one of  Campos’s closest working partners. In this interview, Campos analyzes national paleontology, comments upon the similarities between the geological landscapes of the Northeast of Brazil and China and draws attention to fossil smuggling. “The problem is real, especially in Araripe, and we have to faces it”, he recognizes. He also revealed his plans for a national paleontology network, announced at the end of last year.

Are there only a few fossils in Brazil or few people doing research?
Some paleontologists like to say that Brazil has few fossils. They are saying this when making a comparison with Mongolia, Argentina, the United States, areas that have deserts and where the preservation of fossils is better. In a tropical country the fossils get spoiled, they confront the weather effects. But I would say that in Brazil there are lots of fossils, the thing is that it’s harder work to find them. Looking at a geological map of South America, one can see that in Argentina and in the Andes there are many new lands, containing fossils. But even at that one can find lots of things in older rocks. Brazil is full of fossils in the Paraná basin, in the states of Maranhão and Piauí as well as in a good part of the Northeast. Also, naturally, in the Amazon basin. In some parts of the country there are fewer. We need more projects that involve the collection of fossils. There are lots of projects studying fossils that are already stored in drawers. This is important. But we also need to collect, a very complicated task and one that involves ethics. You can’t simply collect for the sake of collecting. There must be criteria. Sometimes collecting is a salvage operation. Someone is going to build a dam a reservoir at a particular place and we have to make a collection at the location in order to salvage what fossils exist there.

So paleontologists are always cheering for lots of civil construction work so that they can have somewhere to collect?
One needs to accompany all construction, stadiums, wells, roads, railways and to collect whatever is possible. If we allow time to pass by, weather effects begins and the vegetation covers the outcrops and the fossils disappear. Because of its dimension, Brazil is still going to give up lots of fossils. For example, in the state of Sergipe they have found fossils when opening up any new road on the part of the beach, close to the coastline. Fossils turned up during the civil construction of all of those roads in the west of the state of São Paulo.

Why do people become so interested in both natural history and in the fossil species of animals?
There is considerable curiosity towards these fossil exhibitions. Perhaps because there is the participation of other areas of knowledge, even artists, alongside the paleontologist’s work. In order to reconstruct a dinosaur or a fossilized fish, a little bit of … pretending, of representation comes into play.

The artistic representation of an animal from the past is a recreation, but that is not so say that it was really like that?
The paleontologist may well be extremely satisfied with the reconstruction. He guides in the construction of the animal, done with all scientific rigor, with perfect verisimilitude. But in truth that’s not quite the case. If we were to ask another paleontologist to guide the reconstruction, he would change a color here another there.  But I am in favor of the use of fossils as an educational tool for science and the spreading of knowledge in informal spaces, such as museums. This is a pathway to be explored.

Why have the dinosaurs become an icon of paleontology, overshadowing the fossils of other animals and plants?
The most recent interest in these animals began after the publication of a book on paleontology by the American paleontologist Robert Baker Heresias about dinosaurs (published for the first time in the 1960s). Before that there was not such an emphasis on dinosaurs, which had been large animals, slow and completely disregarded. It was believed that some dinosaurs needed to have two brains, one to move the front part of their body and another to move their tail. After Baker, a number of researchers in the United States continued to collect fossils and accepted students for studying them. The launch of films such as Jurassic Park also increased considerable the interest in these animals. But the real pioneer in highlighting the dinosaurs was the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In one of his books there is a short story entitled – The Lost World – about a valley in the Amazon and pterosaurs flying in the Atlantic.

Has Brazil a contribution to make to world paleontology, or is its relevance more local or regional?
The contribution is large. We contributed with information on part of Gondwana and we have data that very often are endemic, pertaining only to South America. There is also this sensational point that concerns the pterosaurs that Alex Kellner and I have discovered at the Chapada do Araripe plateau and to which we have given Brazilian names, the Anhangüera and the Tapejara. The most interesting point is that these pterosaurs have now been found in China. In May, when I was there to view this material, I verified that they are the same pterosaurs, not of the same species but of the same genre. Thus there is  contact bridge between Araripe and China.

How is that?
The Chinese have a depository in the province of Liaoning, the old Manchuria. This is a sensational place with sediments that are very similar to those of the Northeast of Brazil. There are very deep wells, like those in the Recôncavo basin, of almost 5,000 meters in depth, full of sediments and rich in fossils. When I was returning from China, in the plane I said to Kellner: “I walked all over Bahia and broke up so few stones. I need to return there to break up more stone”. We here have to find what the Chinese have found. In China, they have fish; we have as well. We have ostracoids (a type of crustacean), they also do. We have insects, they as well. We have pterosaurs, they have. They have lots of dinosaurs, we have three or four. They have normal dinosaurs and dinosaurs with feathers. And they have birds and mammals. At Araripe we have still not found mammals. It’s possible that a mammal will appear there at any moment. This is not incompatible with the region: the district had the time period from Lower Crustacean until the Upper Crustacean. A furry animal could well appear there at any moment, and I feel the obligation of going to look. In China I felt as if I were in Bahia. “I’m in Bahia, this layer, this basalt, I’ve seen it before.”

There in China did you mention this?
In China and in Manchuria. There are lots of fossils there and there will still appear lots of interesting things, not to mention what exists in the interior of Mongolia, in the deserts to the west of the country. During 1996, the previous time I was there, the people  at the vertebrate paleontology and paleoanthropology institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences were earning US$ 200 per month. There were few people and lots of difficulties. But from that time until now they have grown considerably in this area. They have sent many researchers to Europe, the United States and increased their foreign exchange program. Now they have even sent two researchers here and we ended up going there. I believe that they have doubled the researchers’ salaries. For us the salary is low, but there they have a state house and food. And they have money for research. For all studies they have a top line computer at the forefront, with scanner and good digital machines. All of them are working a lot and publishing articles abroad. The magazines are running after them.

Could we not imitate the Chinese?
I don’t know what the fascination that China has. Never did a Nature or Science editor come here asking that we write an article for them. This I saw there in China. I attended  a lecture from one editor, whose base is in the Philippines, in which he said the following: “They prepare the articles that that we have interest in publishing”. For me, China – this is an opinion that is purely mine – has already taken a step forward in relation to us in science. It’s going to be difficult to catch up with them. We had thought about suggesting a partnership with China, but this would be difficult. They are already a little ahead. The critical mass of research there is enormous.

What is the impact of smuggling on national paleontology?
The problem is real, especially in Araripe, and we have to face it. Brazilian legislation does not allow the commercialization of fossils. In order to carry out a dig, if you do not belong to a research institution, then you need authorization from the DNPM. I, to a certain extent, influence the internal policy of the organ. And our policy is the following: we do not give authorization to anybody that has commercial ends.

Who sustains fossil smuggling?  The collectors or the university museums abroad?
It’s the private collectors. Today it’s fashionable to purchase insect fossils. Serious museums don’t buy; they respect the agreements with Brazil. But this is not always the position of the United States and the United Kingdom. What comforts me a little is that, sooner or later, the contraband material, if it were to be truly important, would be described by a researcher. I’m sorry to say that this ends up happening abroad. But one thing has remained clear to me over the years: when there is Brazilian competency in the area of paleontology, then it is difficult to lose an important fossil to the exterior. Look at the case of Alex Kellner with the pterosaurs: he is very active, runs after things, and it is difficult that someone will do something outside with material from Araripe. The Chinese suffer from the same type of problem. Even there, with the entire Chinese regime, they cannot manage to control the exit of material.

But did you and Kellner not have a problem some years ago with the English researcher, David Martill, from Portsmouth University, who published an article about a dinosaur fossil from Araripe, a smuggled fossil that was the same or similar to one that you had been studying? At the time there was the suspicion that the English fossil was a part of the piece being studied by you.
It wasn’t from the same piece. It was another one, probably smuggled. What can one do in these cases? We have to educate the local population in order to counteract contraband. We need to use the Regional University of Cariri  as a center of attraction; we have given various public audiences, together with the environmental law office, in order to make authorities and the population aware, and everything else possible. Also, the Federal Police have taken action. But these actions, for me, are the ones that resolve the problem the least. They end up drawing more attention to the question than resolving it.

But doesn’t imprisonment for some people for smuggling show that the law is being complied with?
Clearly, imprisonments such as that of the German smuggler Michel Schuwickert in Ceará during 2002 are important actions. But arresting the farm worker because he gained a little money by selling fossils doesn’t make sense. During the dry season, very often, the fossil is the guarantee of a kilogram of beans or rice on the farm worker’s table.

What’s your personal position concerning the sale of fossils?
I have never bought anything. I don’t stimulate anyone to buy. But I believe that the farm worker could be the target of an exchange, of a work of convincing others on the part of the universities. I always sought to work to educate these people. They could receive books, talks. Also we need to set up museums in the locations where the fossils are found. Thus a local could have there, on exhibition, the piece collected by him, with his name there. This counts a lot in communities. In the end, there are a series of things that could be done. Simply arresting the farm hand will not solve the issue. If we don’t do this, the man will hide the fossil from us and afterwards exchange it, sell it, or do whatever business he can with the first citizen from who comes up.

Is it only the people from São Paulo who purchase fossils?
He doesn’t need to be from São Paulo. In the Northeast and in the Amazon basin, any person who comes from the south is from São Paulo to them. Contraband is an extremely disagreeable question for me personally. However, today there are at the maximum only one or two examples of interesting scientific fossils that are outside of the museum, still abroad. After some time the private collector ends up passing the piece to the museum. Some researchers in Germany and Japan are trying to make an agreement with us so that Brazilian researchers can jointly study with them the contraband fossils that were shipped to their countries.

But in 1998 didn’t a Japanese researcher publish in Nature an article about a marine turtle fossil of 110 million years of age, that is the oldest on the planet? It was an example from Araripe. Was it contraband?
Without a doubt. When the researcher does not speak about how he managed to obtain the fossil it’s because he can’t say that he bought it in an illegal manner. There are four Araripe turtles that have been described; three of them involve Brazilian researchers. There is only this one which is not. I spoke with the Japanese gentleman some time later and he said he knew nothing.

How do you yourself react when faced with an article written by foreigners concerning contraband Brazilian fossil?
It’s the most frustrating thing that exists. In spite of all efforts, we can’t cover everything. This German (the smuggler), for example, I would like to put him in jail and throw away the key. He argues that he never ever took a fossil. “People collect a piece for me, give me it as a present and I accept”, he usually says.

For fossils to leave Brazil, isn’t there the need for a scheme that corrupts a certain number of people?
If the pieces justify the investment of a foreigner coming here, they will do everything. Give tips, bribes, pay for the work of a farm worker to look for fossils. And pay a high price for the examples found. These activities go on as far as the airports, although we have permanent action by the Federal Police.

Abroad, how much would a fossil of a rare or new species for science be worth?
They talk about thousands of US dollars, depending on the piece. But this would be an exception. There are a number of sales of fossil lots for decoration, of large quantities of animals and insects. As it costs very little to obtain the fossils, any value for these ornamental pieces is profit. This commerce, although it involves pieces that are without anything new, is highly damaging to science, mainly in the area of insects, where there are lots of interesting things coming from Araripe. I don’t like to put a monetary value of fossils since whatever price I put goes on to serve as a reference. In the places that I dig in Araripe there is nothing left over of fossils the following day. What has been left over, even without importance, someone takes. They think that, if  Diógenes has collected fossils here, then the place is good.

Is Araripe truly important for world paleontology?
Here everything is from the final stage of the Lower Crustacean period. Besides having a major fauna of vertebrates, Araripe has a very important flora, probably with the first plants with flowers on the planet. Mary Elizabeth Bernardes de Oliveira, from the University of São Paulo, is studying this question. Here there were the first forests with flowers, which later would house the mammals and birds. It is this forest that was going to mold all human life on the earth during the next 65 million years, and which went on to allow for the appearance of the primates, and consequently of man. These are the plants that prepared the environment from which afterwards the animals that are going to be adapted to it would spring.

Going back a little in time, when did paleontology begin in Brazil?
It was necessary to have found fossils in order to have Brazilian paleontology. The oldest date is something around the end of the 17th century, the start of the 18th century, when mammal fossils were found in water wells in Bahia, as can still be found today in the state. The first proven fossil find is material cited by Baron Eschewege, a colonel in the Portuguese army that came with Don João VI to Brazil and found the material in the state of Minas Gerais. They were mammal fossils of a Pleistocene (between 1.8 million and 11,000 years ago), the same as those from Bahia. But the true find that we take as the starting date of national paleontology is the head design of a fish from the Chapada do Araripe plateau, along with the bones of the mammals from Bahia, which came out in the books published by the zoologist [Johann Baptiste von Spix] and by the botanist [Carl Friedrich Phillipp von Martius] between 1823 and 1831. Spix and Martius were two traveling naturalists, who came from Bavaria and carried out a long trek through Brazil from 1817 until 1820. They didn’t pass exactly through Chapada, but received these fossils as a present in the town of Oeiras, Piauí. This was the first illustration of a Brazilian fossil disclosed to the world. It was truly first class fossil material. The important point of the discovery is that when the sketch was published, Brazil was already Brazil.

During the Empire, did Don Pedro II stimulate geological research?
Don Pedro II had an interest in this area and established the Imperial Geology Commission (in 1875). Before this there had been the expeditions of Thayer (1865) and Morgan (1870). This latter, which was funded by JP Morgan, studied the coast of Northeast Brazil and was led by Charles Frederic Hart, a Canadian who was a geology professor at Cornell University in the United States. There had also been the influence of the National Museum, which then had not been transferred to the Quinta da Boa Vista, but already had an important role, as a body of scholars, collections, and was open to visitors. Hart brought Orville Derby, an American geologist, and the two of them produced an extremely expressive piece of work. Afterwards, Derby worked in São  Paulo, at the Geology and Geography Commission of the State of Sao Paulo, and he initiated the topographic mapping of São Paulo State, since he didn’t understand how anyone could study geology without studying topography. This was time consuming, wasted money, and he was highly criticized. Hart and Derby were fossil collectors. They carried out an exceptional piece of work. They journeyed, collected, and sent the fossils collected abroad.

Did the proclamation of the Republic change this picture?
In 1905, Brazil began to confront an energy problem. And this energy problem had to be solved using Brazilian coal. But Brazilian coal, whose deposits are found in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, has a high ash level, sometimes reaching 23%, and a high sulfur content, which damages its burning. In reality, it was not a very good coal. And there was a further aggravation: the railway engines and other machinery that came here were made in England to burn high quality Cardiff coal. These machines couldn’t adapt themselves to coal from Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. In order to solve the problem, they opted for the simplest possible manner: to attempt to discover in Brazil coal of a better quality. The English had done this in South Africa. It was for this reason that fossils began appearing in Brazil. The study of fossils linked to coal, mainly  those linked to botany, began to be developed.

And further: the study of these coal mines, which began in Alagoas, in Bahia and ended up in the South, brought about a geological survey of the whole of Brazil and was the reason for a report called the Coal Mines Commission Report, published in 1905 by a geologist named Israel C. White. This is the White Coal Report that made the federal government to create an organ that would overlook mining in Brazil; not in the sense of giving concessions, as it is done until today, the concession was made then through any organ, any secretary of the ministry gave this concession. But the concession was given so that they could study, by selected areas, and help the miners to find coal and other minerals. Consequently, the Geology and Mineralogy Service of Brazil was established in 1907. And geologist Derby was invited to be its first director. He was director from 1907 until 1915,when he implanted the idea that it was necessary to carry out scientific research in order to find minerals. Up until then, the original tendency, the Portuguese technique, had always been empirical, based on a practical manner, and had always been considerably dissociated from what was done in the academic world.

Derby buried the Portuguese legacy then?
He attempted to break with the empirical method of finding minerals. He wanted to do away with that story of using a divining rod that vibrated in order to find water, as is done until today in the Northeast. He attempted to impose scientific method. He didn’t have much success, but it was the start of everything. This is his legacy. He committed suicide in 1915 and the Geology Service went on to have a new director, Euzébio Paulo de Oliveira. He was the one who managed to impose scientific methodology. In order to do this he had to make a geological map of the country. The map has information on rock formations, but to obtain an indication of its age one needs fossils. Thus, fossils became a fundamental item within the Geology and Mineralogy Service of Brazil.

In the decade of the 1930’s we were attempting to resolve geological problems. These lands are from the Crustacean or Tertiary Period? Did they have fossils? They had. But nobody was able to identify them. The majority of books on paleontology were written for the French, the British, the Germans and the North Americans. And they dealt with the faunas and floras of the northern hemisphere. It was not possible to identify fossils from here apart from a very few. It was necessary to create paleontology science. The solution was to gather together lots of fossils and to send them to a specialist on the question living abroad. And he was paid for identifying the material. This was the first solution for Brazilian fossils. This scheme continued in this manner until more or less the end of the 1930’s. In 1937 there was an expedition from Harvard University to South America, during which the researchers came into Brazil to collect fossils. Making up part of this expedition were Theodor White and Llewellyn Ivor Price, a gaucho who was born exactly one hundred years ago in the town of Santa Maria, but who had been studying and researching in the United States.

How did the expedition progress? Was it during it that Price found in the south of the country one of the oldest dinosaurs in the world, of close to 230 million years of age?
They found this dinosaur, the Staurikosaurus pricei, and gave the name of the species in honor of Price. It was an expedition to study the Triassic Period, which in Brazil only exists in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. But at that time, the researchers didn’t worry themselves much about dinosaurs. The greatest interest was in the vertebrates, of preference reptiles, which are closely related to mammals. The concern was to attempt to resolve the problem of the origin of man. To attempt to discover this group of reptiles, the synapsids, which today are placed as a class apart. The expedition had some notable happenings. For example, it was already necessary to request a State license for carrying out an expedition. This was done and the documentation has been preserved, all of it, in an archive of the CNPq (National Scientific and Technological Development Board) that is in the Astronomy and Fine Arts Museum, in Rio de Janeiro.

If authorization was already needed, why did the Staurikosaurus go to Harvard?
This individual left here with all of the necessary authorization. The policy of sending  fossils abroad was ending but had not yet finished. At this point in time, the University of Sao Paulo (USP), which began in 1934, was already concerned about training paleontologists. There was Josué Camargo Mendes, who had written teaching books concerning paleontology. He had done his traineeship at the DNPM, and had come here on various occasions. During this short period, the DNPM established a paleontology section. When Price returned indefinitely to Brazil, as well as the USP group, there was also an incipient paleontology center at the National Museum. And he arrived and began training people there. The next step, an important one, was the need to find crude oil in Brazil. Yet again an energy problem, now petroleum instead of coal, was to bring about a stimulus towards paleontology. Hence the need for having geology courses, of which paleontology is one of the sections. Starting from 1960 geology schools came about, all with a department of stratography and paleontology. When I entered here into the DNPM, during 1968, the department had thirteen paleontologists, of these five were research lecturers, the CNPq’s highest title at that time, and all were from the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. At that time there were also paleontologists in Rio Grande do Sul, in Minas and a small group in Recife. In Bahia State, my alma mater, there was no paleontology, except within Petrobras. One has to learn everything on one’s own.

December the Ministry of Science and Technology launched at Uberaba the project for a national research network on paleontology, with a forecast budget of around R$ 6 million. But it would appear that few national paleontologists are aware of this initiative. Is it true that you yourself are at the head of the network?
I’m in an uncomfortable situation. A major project was placed on top of my own project, which had a determined objective and was much smaller. Out of the blue, they threw R$ 6 million on the table. In my original project, I wanted to set up an educational  play area, a library, a workshop on dinosaurs, a lucid space at the side of the paleontology museum that exists in the town of Peirópolis, in the municipality of Uberaba. But political leaders must have thought that this was small fry and my project returned bloated, with a network on top. We are going to have to make alterations to this. All researchers will be listened to. I have already said this to them. The personnel from Rio Grande do Sul, which was excluded from the network, will once again be included. If not, I’ll be out.

It came out in a São Paulo newspaper that a parliamentarian had managed to secure the money for the network for Minas State?
It’s true. It was the parliamentarian Nárcio Rodrigues, from the PSDB party of Minas Gerais. But I want to have a scientific board set up for the network and this board will decide who will receive the money for research. Nobody is going to give money to nobody else without them having a scientific project that has been judged by the pairs system. I will not be open to less.

But who will coordinate the network?
Who is coordinating the financial part of the network is the Secretary of Science, Technology and Tertiary Teaching of Minas Gerais. And it was they who asked me to coordinate the scientific part of the network. I’m going to give continuity to the work that began in 1986, in partnership with the DNPM and the City of Uberaba. I’ll be working with Beethoven Teixeira so that we can set up in Peirópolis a reference center for dinosaurs, in particular, and for Brazilian fossils in general. In Minas there is not a critical mass of paleontologists to set up the network. People from other States have to come into the network.