How come paleontologists wait so long to release their findings?

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Sept. 21 2006 6:32 PM

Little Lucy's Debut

Why'd it take so long?

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Paleontologists working in Ethiopia announced on Wednesday that they had discovered the oldest remains ever found of a child. Their research came out in the science journal Nature and described a skeleton that was first unearthed in late 2000. All the same, some colleagues have called the publication premature. Premature? It's been almost six years. How long do they have to wait?

It's really up to the team that makes the discovery. This group could have announced its good fortune right away, especially if it had wanted to generate publicity and help raise money for the research. But it still would have taken years to gather enough meaningful data for scientific publication.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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For one thing, the team didn't find all the fossilized bones at the same time. First came the skull and a partial skeleton in 2000, but a trickle of other fragments turned up over the next few years—a left foot in January of 2002, for example, and a femur fragment in 2003. Even if researchers had found everything on a first pass, it might still have taken several years of meticulous work with a dental pick to remove the sandstone and dirt from the bone fragments.

Researchers generally don't have much time to work on their specimens and analyze the data. Most have day jobs as university professors, with just a few months per year allotted for field work—and in this case, the Ethiopian government wouldn't let them take the bones out of the country.

A paleontologist is likely to publish more quickly if he's got a new specimen of an established species. (The recent find, for instance, represents an excellent example of the well-known Australopithecus afarensis.) If he thought he had a new species altogether, he'd want to gather as much data as possible to make the case—which could mean waiting until every last millimeter of bone had been cleaned.

Before they announce a find, paleontologists tend not to flaunt their discoveries. They're often bound by two promises of confidentiality—to the government of the country where they made their find and to the science journal that will publish their results. The first public mention of the work is usually local—at a press conference in Addis Ababa, in this case—and timed to coincide with the publication of the paper. In the meantime, a research team will avoid formal conference presentations or public discussions of their work. Sometimes they'll chat about their skeleton with colleagues or show casts of their specimens. When the "little Lucy" find was made public yesterday, some researchers in the field had known it was coming; others were taken by surprise.

That's not to say they hide their work for fear of competition. Most of the time, a research team will have an exclusive permit to work a particular site. But a paleontologist with an earth-shattering find might want to hide his work for fear of creating a stir before he'd gathered enough evidence to back up his claims. Eugene Dubois faced widespread criticism when he proposed that his Java Man might be an intermediate form between apes and humans. By about 1900, he'd stopped talking about the find, and he supposedly hid the fossils in a box under his bed.

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Explainer thanks Alison Brooks of George Washington University and Eric Delson of Lehman College.