Rich countries overwhelmingly dominate paleontology research, even when the fossils do not originate there, a new study shows. Researchers analyzed 26,409 paleobiology papers from 1990 to 2020 and found that scientists in high- or upper-middle-income countries contributed to 97 percent of fossil research. And those from former colonial powers disproportionately controlled fossils from their former colonies. For example, French researchers conducted a quarter of all paleontology studies in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; German scientists carried out 17 percent of research on fossils from Tanzania; and 10 percent of studies on South African and Egyptian fossils were conducted by British investigators.

“This was very eye-opening,” says Nussaïbah B. Raja-Schoob, a paleontologist at the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen–Nuremberg in Germany, who co-led the study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. “With colonialism, certain countries already had an advantage. After independence, the knowledge wasn’t transferred back, so a lot of countries had to start from scratch and with less money.”

Charts show where researchers come from to collect fossils in each world region and highlight notable collaboration patterns.

Credit: Youyou Zhou; Source: “Colonial History and Global Economics Distort Our Understanding of Deep-Time Biodiversity,” by Nussaïbah B. Raja et al., in Nature Ecology & Evolution; February 2022