Export of Caribbean natural history artifacts impedes research

June 16, 2022 - 9:35am

Hundreds of years after Europeans arrived in the Caribbean, the impact of colonialism and slavery is still being felt in the region.

The historical removal of natural history collections, fossils and archaeological materials from the Caribbean has impeded research and created barriers for Caribbean scholars, a global team of researchers argue in a paper published in American Naturalist.

The researchers, including UO archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick, also advocate for solutions that could help restore equity. They emphasize the need to re-center local perspectives in Caribbean research. And they make a case for regulations that prevent permanent exportation of scientific samples from their country of origin.

This team originally convened for a project piecing together the history of animal life in the Caribbean, mapping out how extinction has intersected with human presence on the islands. In trying to reconstruct the past, they found gaps.

“We came to the realization that some of the deficiencies we had with data were the direct result of information and samples being taken out of the region by natural historians,” Fitzpatrick said.

Europeans took fossils and other natural history samples from the Caribbean and spread them to collections worldwide, separated from their cultural and ecological context. And they didn’t give credit to the locals, both indigenous Caribbean people and enslaved African people, who shared crucial knowledge with them.

Today, that impact is still being felt. Specimens are harder to access, often missing important context.

“Scholars who reside in the Caribbean today must often venture to other countries to study materials that originate from where they live,” Fitzpatrick said.