In Hunting Down ‘Borrowed’ Artifacts, Colombia Reclaims Its Heritage

Last June, Leslie Noe, a British paleontologist, flew from his home in Bogotá, Colombia to the University of California, Berkeley. He was intent on finding out more about a 125-million-year old marine reptile, Callawayasaurus colombiensis, and had received a grant to visit the school’s museum, examine several plesiosaur fossils, and try to answer why the animal might have developed such a long neck. Little did he know he was about to help solve a nearly 70-year-old scientific whodunit.

Noe, who has spent some of his professional life in museums, makes archival research part of his investigations whenever he visits fossil collections. So on his second day in Berkeley, he sat sifting through folders in filing cabinets. That was when he stumbled on an old field notebook from an American scientist’s trip to Villa de Leyva, Colombia, under the aegis of the Tropical Oil Co. One page included the note, “Plesiosaur, 19 Jan. 1945” — which piqued Noe’s interest since it is the group that includes the Callawayasaurus.

Then the museum’s associate director led Noe to a four-drawer cabinet. “We’ve never sorted through this,” Noe recalled him saying. Noe soon found notes and letters between Colombian and U.S. scientists spanning more than a decade, from 1945 to 1956, including several agreements about loaning a skull fossil from a long-necked reptile named for the country where it was discovered — the very Callawayasaurus colombiensis Noe had been researching.

The correspondence trailed off with the researcher Samuel Welles, of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, promising to return the fossil to Colombia as soon as he published results from his study of the specimen. Welles didn’t publish until 1962, and the fossil never crossed continents again. It was stored on the Berkeley campus for years, occasionally consulted by researchers.

After six days in California, the day before he returned to Bogotá, Noe told the assistant director, “I think you’ve got a problem. This [skull] obviously belongs to Colombia.” Around the same time, the fossil happened to come up in a meeting between various Colombian government agencies, and Oscar Paredes Zapata, director general of the Servicio Geológico Colombiano (SGC), decided to try and get it back. Noe, who has been living and working in Colombia since 2011, called the parallel developments “serendipity.”

“I didn’t go there to solve the problem of the skull fossil’s history,” Noe added. But after going through eight boxes and four filing cabinets of archives, “everything fell into place at the right time.”

First, emails were exchanged between the SGC and the university. The university agreed that the fossil belonged to Colombia. Conversations followed between the embassies of both countries, eventually encompassing the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Just a few months after the first email, on March 21, Marcela Gómez-Pérez, who works for the SGC — and is married to Noe — found herself carefully placing the well-preserved, nearly intact fossil in a diplomatic valise. After posing for photos with diplomats, she carried the 12-inch-long specimen onto a plane home, returning to Colombian soil what had been absent for close to seven decades.

Fewer than 10 other specimens exist with such pristine characteristics, giving the fossil unique scientific value, according to Gómez-Pérez. “It’s one of the few that hasn’t been crushed,” she added. Its return has been hailed by Colombian scientists and bureaucrats alike as vital to future research, as well as a symbolic step toward reconnecting average citizens with their heritage.

But its recovery is just one example of a larger effort in the Andean country to prevent scientific and cultural patrimony from leaving the country — as well as to recover artifacts in foreign hands. The Callawayasaurus case was among the first “palpable results of all the work being done in the last year,” says Eugenia Serpa, coordinator of the movable cultural property group at Colombia’s Department of Heritage, part of the Ministry of Culture. She was referring to a late 2017 agreement to bring law enforcement, diplomatic, scientific, cultural, and customs officials together to focus on patrimony. But the case also raises issues for both developing and developed world scientists about the value of fossils in particular to their countries of origin.

Colombia’s effort has included mobilizing lawyers and government employees in a handful of countries around the world, handling complex negotiations for the return of more than 300 specimens that now reside in Belgium, New Zealand, Italy, France, the U.S. and other countries, according to Serpa. Outside Colombia, John E. Simmons, founder of the consulting firm Museologica, described the case as an example of a “180-degree change” in Latin America, as advances in science have led to important fossils being increasingly kept by museums in their country of origin, rather than in the U.S. or Europe.

Gómez-Pérez explains that Colombian scientists and geology students had long wondered about the Callawayasaurus’ long neck and sleek body on display in the Museo Geológico José Royo y Gómez, Colombia’s national geology museum. For decades, rumors circulated about the head of the specimen, which was a replica made of resin. “That was the fossil the gringos stole,” was the story passed around, according to Gómez-Pérez. “It was thought that they had tricked us, and left us a fake,” she added. “Coming to the museum — the only one of its kind in Colombia — meant coming across this story,” she said.

Not everyone views the skull’s recovery with equal gravitas. Mark Goodwin, the associate director at the UC Museum of Paleontology, repeatedly compared the case to “an overdue library loan,” and wrote in an email, “I don’t think the return of an admittedly long-overdue loan of the plesiosaur skull by the UC Museum of Paleontology is a good example of Colombia’s broader efforts to recover its cultural and scientific patrimony.”

Goodwin, who has been working at the museum since 1978 — and knew Sam Welles, who died in 1997, at the age of 89 — tells the story a little differently. Goodwin said he “came across correspondence from SGC that reviewed the terms of the loan about 15 years ago.” Sometime after that, a Colombian graduate student attending the University of North Carolina in Raleigh came to the museum to look at some turtle fossils. “I said, ‘You’re from Colombia — I’d really like to return this skull.’ He said he’d look into it. I didn’t hear anything back from him.”

When Noe appeared last year, Goodwin explains, he saw another opportunity to return the fossil. “This was supposed to be returned in the 1950s — before I was born,” Goodwin said. “It’s my obligation, as a museum official, to ensure its safe return.” Within a few months, the SGC director emailed the UC Chancellor, with attached digital copies of the letters and notes from researchers during the 1940s and 50s. Eventually, arrangements began for Gómez-Pérez to come and recover the piece.

Goodwin said that “it’s not that unusual for loans to not get returned in the time agreed upon” between museums, at least with regards to vertebrate fossils, his area of expertise.

He wrote in an email that “among paleontologists, while we all have our own home institutions, and home countries, we operate as an international community, sharing our data and our fossils, and our passion for understanding the history of life on Earth.” What’s more, he said, a case like that of the Plesiosaur fossil can occur because “a developing country may not have the resources and infrastructure to support the basic activities relative to research and collections.”

Leslie Noe, a British paleontologist seen here studying another fossil specimen in Bogotá, first noticed last June that the skull at Berkeley was long overdue for return to Colombia. “I didn’t go there to solve the problem of the skull fossil’s history,” Noe said. Visual: Andrew Parsons/PA Images/PA Images via Getty

But John E. Simmons said that Latin American countries have “a long history … of scientists coming and taking stuff away and publishing in a foreign language,” i.e., English. In 2006, Simmons and Yaneth Muñoz-Saba, a colleague from Colombia’s Universidad Nacional, published a study showing that, from 1980 to 1984, of the 48 new amphibians, birds and reptiles discovered in Latin America, only 31 percent of the specimens leading to their identification were displayed in Latin American museums; the rest went to U.S., European, and Canadian collections.

But the capacity of these countries to maintain, exhibit, and research such specimens has markedly increased in recent decades, Simmons said. Between 2000 and 2004, those statistics reversed: Of 127 new taxa discovered, 71 percent of specimens related to their identification were then displayed in Latin American museums, and only 29 percent outside their countries of origin.

“That’s a big change,” noted Simmons. He explains possible reasons for the change might include more scientists working throughout Latin America, and more institutions doing “world-class systematics [or classification] and collections.”

John Nudds, a British paleontologist who is a member (along with Noe), of the Geological Curators Group, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Geological Society of London, said that developing countries like China and Brazil are “just now catching up with science in the West, and they want the benefit of having their scientists work on their fossils … [and] want to retain control” of them. But Nudds favors what he called a more “laissez-faire” approach when it comes to fossils, and distinguishes them from, say, archeological artifacts, which “relate to the culture and people of a country.” With fossils, he said, “I believe scientists all over the world should have access to fossils from all over the world.”

Still, he understands that many developing countries don’t make such a distinction. Nudds cited Brazil as an example, where he traveled two days by bus in 2004 to see the Santana formation, a well-known source of fish and insect fossils. There he found children selling fossils for less than $10 — despite laws against such practices. “Within two days,” he said, “two shiny black Mercedes sedans with government plates from Rio were parked outside the posada where I was staying” — they were obviously keeping an eye on the foreign scientists.

“It’s strange,” he continued, “in Brazil, fossil trading is seen like gun running, or child pornography. … The Draconian laws wind up encouraging a black market.” At the same time, he sees the practical benefits of countries like Brazil and Colombia becoming strict about keeping as many fossils as possible. Because of past practices, scientists in the global south can find themselves having to travel to the U.S. or Europe in order to study fossils originally found in their own countries. “Scientists in the developing world don’t necessarily have the resources — they can’t get to these other places [to study fossils] as easily,” Nudds said.

For her part, Gómez-Pérez doesn’t regret the fossil’s original loan, saying it was “the best decision they could have made at the time.” In the 1940s, the national museum and agency charged with overseeing the country’s geological resources was still in its infancy, and many discoveries were made at sites where U.S. oil companies were prospecting. She rattled off a list of other specimens that had been borrowed for research and have yet to be recovered, from places like Panama, Florida, and Toronto, as if they were friends she had lost track of decades ago.

The recent government effort to protect cultural and scientific patrimony in Colombia — and to recover what’s been lost — has also spurred Gómez-Pérez’s agency to develop new rules governing such practices. “We’re trying to regulate under what conditions [specimens] can leave the country, so it’s not a no man’s land,” she said. Final versions of these regulations have yet to be published, and the issue is currently very “sensitive” due to presidential elections in Colombia, so she declined to elaborate.

In the meantime, the Callawayasaurus skull’s return to Colombia this spring continues to be celebrated. From her capitol office in Bogotá, Eugenia Serpa explained, “It’s important for Colombian citizens to know that this specimen is from their land, and belongs to them. And when it has been studied, it will give us added meaning to what has been our country and its territory.” It’s also valuable, she added, “for people to be able to see it, close up — and not just in photos or video.”

Noe, back from California, recalled a recent encounter with a group of 15 Montessori students at the Museo Geológico José Royo y Gómez, where the skull is now proudly displayed after decades in storage. The students, he said enthusiastically, had finally seen the reptile “from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tail.”

Timothy Pratt is based outside Atlanta. He has worked with The New York Times, The Guardian, The Associated Press, Reuters, and many other outlets, covering race, immigration, science, soccer, and more, in English and Spanish.