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I accidentally forgot to leave out some very critical drama surrounding the Palau findings that I just reported on. Next Monday, March 17th 2008, the National Geographic Channel will be running a documentary titled, “Mystery Skulls of Palau.” The National Geographic Channel is funded by the National Geographic Society, the very group that Lee Berger sought out to fund the excavation of the Palau fossils after he discovered them.

Rex Dalton, of Nature News, has looked into this issue a bit more. Dalton, if you don’t know, has been reporting for Nature News on paleontology, anthropology and the like for almost ten years. He’s also specialized in figuring out scientific misconduct. In his report on the Palau findings, “Pacific ‘dwarf’ bones cause controversy,” Dalton’s covers most of the basics that is running in the press but he’s also got some juicy bits about how Berger’s irked some government officials in Palau.

“The new claim was first disclosed in a commercial movie produced by the National Geographic Society, which partially funded Berger’s work. Although the movie is not scheduled for broadcast in the United States until 17 March, it was shown in Asia on 1 March, before the journal publication, drawing criticism.

In Palau, some officials and traditional leaders are concerned that sacred burial sites were exploited for movie-making rather than scientific purposes. Adalbert Eledui, the state resource manager who oversees the region, describes the movie as “unscientific” and says he should have had notice before it was broadcast to protect the sites from an expected influx of visitors. Now, he says, resource managers may need to build cages to restrict access to the caves….

…Most of the island’s chiefs had never visited the caves before last week, because Palauans typically avoid burial sites. Palau’s paramount chief Yutaka Gibbons told Nature that he had heard about the bones from people talking in a restaurant about the movie. “This shows disrespect to our people, country and laws,” he says. “Before they did anything, they should have sat with us.” Berger says he believed that traditional leaders had been briefed on his work in the caves.”

Seems like this is unfolding into a perfect example of how to not conduct paleoanthropological research in another country. I just don’t get it how anthropologists, people trained in the study of humans, can often disregard notifying officials and representatives of the government about what is ultimately their fossils. It seems common courtesy to inform Palauans with a simple memo,

“Hey, we found some interesting bones in your backyard. You may wanna know about it. Can we work together with you on this?”

I can only speculate that the story behind the Palau findings went something like this… Berger was kayaking around these Micronesian islands and stumbled upon these findings. He saw an opportunity, and he sought out a big institution with big money to fund his work. The National Geographic Society of course, didn’t hesitate to fund Berger. They would love to make some sensational headlines, especially if these 25 or so individuals were hobbits like Flores. The Society mobilized to make a documentary out of this and all along the people of Palau were left out of the loop.

This isn’t the first time that the National Geographic Society has been entangled in a mess like this. I can think of the drama surrounding the hasty excavation of Selam as one of the more prominent examples of when external interests pushed aside doing good science. Also, the questionable dating of Omo I and II, funded also by the Society is ill-received by many. In this situation, as outlined by the quotes from chieftains and Palauan government officials, critical information wasn’t passed down to the people who these bones belong too.

Tim White shared a comment about this problem in Dalton’s writeup,

“This looks like a classic example of what can go wrong when science and the review process are driven by popular media.”

To which Berger defended,

“he didn’t know the movie was scheduled to premiere before the journal report came out.”

Bollocks. I don’t buy it. It is no secret that Berger was bed fellows with the National Geographic Society in getting these bones out of the ground, so why didn’t he nor the Society tell Palauans about this? It seems awfully hegemonic and disrespectful to not give the people of Palau a bit of a heads up! Don’t you think?