How colonial history and global economics distort our understanding of biodiversity

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Rhodes University PhD student, Aviwe Matiwane
Rhodes University PhD student, Aviwe Matiwane

In an article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Rhodes University PhD student Aviwe Matiwane shows, along with six other researchers, how colonial history and global economics distort our understanding of deep-time biodiversity.

“Fossils provide an important record of how life on Earth has evolved and adapted to changing environments,” Matiwane said. “However, the fossil record is incomplete and uneven, with strong biases towards certain global regions such as North America and Europe. These spatial biases are not only due to physical factors but also to historical and socio-economic factors related to colonialism.”

In the study, the researchers explore how scientific colonialism and socio-economic factors, such as gross domestic product (GDP), education, security, and English proficiency, affect the global distribution of fossil data.

Matiwane explained, “We used scientific publication and geographic data from the Paleobiology Database to investigate past biodiversity patterns. We found that a staggering 97% of palaeontological data is generated by researchers based in countries in Northern America and Western Europe.”

Furthermore, according to Matiwane, many of these affluent countries also conduct a large amount of research abroad, often without collaboration with local researchers in the countries they are working in. “This is a clear demonstration of ‘parachute science’, where lower-income countries are exploited for their fossils and palaeontological data, but the higher income countries retain the knowledge and power,” she said.

Matiwane states that if these global disparities in palaeontology are to be alleviated and more ethical and equitable research conducted, decolonisation needs to occur, and researchers must adopt more inclusive research practices.

Based on the study’s findings, the researchers encourage the palaeontological community to:

1. Develop more equitable, ethical and sustainable collaborations based on mutual trust and respect that centre the needs and research interests of local people.

2. Seek funding schemes that develop equitable global partnerships between resource-rich countries and local communities in lower-income countries.

3. Increase access to palaeontological knowledge, particularly for lower-income countries, through repatriation of fossil specimens to their countries of origin, more open-access publishing options, and investing in institutions in lower-income countries so that they can manage and protect their fossils locally.

“These are some suggestions that could help improve the challenges in our field,” Matiwane explained. “Countries like South Africa have strict heritage laws that protect against parachute science. We hope that our research can initiate discussions around these practices, leading to tangible solutions.”

Since the article was published, Matiwane is pleased to share some positive outcomes:

1) Nature has started reviewing its ethics policies to align with some of the findings that were highlighted by the article;

2) The translated summaries and articles have been used globally on different platforms to bring awareness and facilitate change within institutions; and

3) This was the first time a research article was translated and published in isiXhosa by the journal.


The full article can be accessed here: