Archaeologists in Mexico are urging people who find megafauna fossils not to share their discoveries online after a collection of mammoth remains was looted before researchers had a chance to study them. According to a recent report, ancient fossils are often damaged or destroyed by careless plunderers, some of whom are so blasé about the priceless relics that they trade them for beer.
The report in La Jornada Veracruz explains that a cache of two teeth belonging to an extinct relative of mammoths and elephants was found by residents of Juan Felipe, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Among them was retired police captain Roberto García Jiménez, who told the newspaper that the find – which consisted of a molar and a canine – was exposed on the banks of the Moralillo river thanks to the erosion of a layer of sediment.
Supposedly, the fossils were reported to officials working for the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), who then requested local authorities to secure the area and protect the ancient fossils. However, after word spread on social media, looters quickly arrived at the scene and removed some of the remains.
Gustavo Carmona Díaz from La Universidad Veracruzana told the paper that such finds are routinely pillaged as soon as they are announced, often resulting in the degradation or destruction of the vestiges. According to the report, a mammoth jawbone that was initially located alongside the teeth has since been taken.
“There are some really crass examples where they’ve even traded the fossils to tourists for a beer,” said Carmona Díaz. “In other cases the remains are smashed.”
Even those that are later recovered are often damaged, as such ancient artifacts tend to deteriorate very quickly when removed from the sediment that has protected them for thousands of years. In this case, the fossils are believed to have belonged to an ancient species of gomphothere that became extinct more than 10,000 years ago.
Responding to the loss of these relics, Carmona Díaz has called on the INAH to do more to protect archaeological sites and prevent the looting of fossils. In response, the Institute has released a statement explaining that it did in fact contact the local authorities on May 5 to request protection from the local police.
“Given the specialized treatment that paleontological assets require, we encourage people who witness discoveries of this nature to avoid promoting them on social media and to bring them to the attention of the National Institute of Anthropology and History,” said the INAH.
Incidentally, megafauna remains are fairly common in Mexico, which was once home to large herds of Columbian mammoths. Slightly larger and considerably less furry than the woolly mammoths of Eurasia, these enormous ancient beasts were hunted by Ice Age humans in North America.
However, considering the species died out more than ten millennia ago, their bones are probably worth a lot more than a bottle of beer.