In a move that has shaken the scientific world, two ancient human fossils – Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi – were recently transported to suborbital space. On September 8, 2023, a shoulder bone of A. sediba and a finger bone of H. naledi were sent skyward aboard a Virgin Galactic private spacecraft, sharing the journey with three commercial passengers. This voyage, the third of its kind in Virgin Galactic’s history, saw the fossils spend approximately five minutes in space, safely stowed within a carbon fiber container.
These prehistoric artifacts weren’t on a leisurely space tour. They were in the possession of Tim Nash, a South African businessman and an early investor in Virgin Galactic, who happens to be a friend of Lee Berger, the renowned paleoanthropologist who spearheaded the discovery of these bones near Johannesburg. Berger had secured a special export permit for the fossils, arguing that the mission represented "a sign of respect by humanity to our African ancestors who gave us the technology, skills and mind that allows this perhaps greatest expression of human technological achievement – the exploration of space."
Ancient Human Fossils Take a Trip to Space, Prompting Debate Among Scientists
Two ancient human fossils, belonging to Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi, recently made a journey to suborbital space aboard a Virgin Galactic private spacecraft. The event, which took place on Sept. 8, 2023, has stirred a lively debate within the scientific community.
A Historic Voyage
The fossils, an Australopithecus sediba shoulder bone and a Homo naledi finger bone, spent about 5 minutes in suborbital space, tucked inside a carbon fiber container. The fossils were accompanied to space by three commercial passengers, marking the third crewed flight in Virgin Galactic’s history. Tim Nash, a South African businessman and early investor in Virgin Galactic, took the fossils aboard. Nash is a close friend of famed paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, who led the discovery of these fossils near Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Controversial Purpose Behind the Mission
In his application to the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), Berger described the mission as a tribute to our African ancestors, who gave us the technology, skills, and mindset that enabled space exploration. He also hinted at potential scientific studies, including assessing the degree of radiation the fossils might absorb in space.
Berger argued that these fossils are among the world’s best-documented ones, having been micro-CT scanned and surface-scanned at the highest resolutions possible. This means virtual copies of the fossils remain safe on Earth.
The Fossils’ Role in Human Evolution
Australopithecus sediba lived about 2 million years ago and had features that mixed earlier Australopithecus features with more modern ones. These hominids may have served as direct ancestors to Homo sapiens and the Homo genus in general.
Homo naledi’s place in the human family tree is less clear, although evidence suggests it buried its dead some 300,000 years ago, making it the first other human species confirmed to have done so.
A Mixed Reaction from the Scientific Community
While the fossils returned safely to Earth, the voyage sparked criticism from many quarters. The European Society for the Study of Human Evolution questioned the scientific merit of the project and raised ethical concerns about potential damage to these unique materials.
Rachel King, an archaeologist at University College London, critiqued SAHRA’s approval of Berger’s export, while Luc Amkreutz, an archaeologist at Universiteit Leiden, expressed disappointment over the need for such actions to raise interest in the field.
In defense of the mission, Nash argued that the fossils are a small part of the fossil record and have been well-studied. He emphasized that human advancement requires risk.
While the voyage of these fossils into space has certainly stirred controversy, it also highlights the ongoing struggle between scientific preservation and the desire for exploration and publicity. What seems clear is that as we push the boundaries of what is possible, we must also consider the potential consequences and ensure that our actions serve to enhance, not impede, our understanding of the past.