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Journal Article

The Fossil Trade: Paying a Price for Human Origins

Peter C. Kjærgaard
Vol. 103, No. 2 (June 2012), pp. 340-355
DOI: 10.1086/666365
Stable URL:
Page Count: 16
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ABSTRACTFossils have been traded for centuries. Over the past two hundred years the market has developed into an organized enterprise, with fossils serving multiple functions as objects of scientific study, collectors' items, and investments. Finding fossils, digging them up or purchasing them, transporting, studying, and conserving them, and putting them on display was and still is expensive. Since the early nineteenth century, funding bodies, academic institutions and museums, philanthropists, dealers, collectors, amateurs, and professional paleontologists have constituted elaborate networks driven by collaboration, necessity, ambition, accolades, and capital to generate knowledge and produce geological artifacts, increasing our understanding of the natural world, advancing careers and institutions, and contributing to personal fortunes. The emergence of paleoanthropology as a scientific discipline around 1900 generated a scientific focus on the human story that was easy to sell. The scarcity of ancient human remains made it close to impossible for a commercial market to evolve, yet finding them required serious funding. Elaborate schemes for financing expeditions and excavations went hand in hand with individual aspirations, patronage, philanthropy, networks, and alliance building, as concession rights and access to sponsors were objects of regular political intrigues and often bitter disputes.