Graphic detail | Fossil feuds

Research on amber from a war-torn part of Myanmar is surging

Some journals have banned such studies, which have identified thousands of ancient species

Scientists’ curiosity may be limitless, but ethical rules restrict their methods. Medical research requires informed consent, and human embryos can be studied only until they are a few weeks old.

Listen to this story.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
Listen to this story
Save time by listening to our audio articles as you multitask

Such rules apply to dead matter as well. Some journals reject studies on fossils of dubious provenance. But some palaeontologists publish papers in permissive journals on fossils from countries with loose rules or weak enforcement. This yields benefits for science, but may come at a cost to people in the fossils’ countries of origin.

In recent years, this trade-off has become acute in Myanmar. The northern state of Kachin is a remarkable source of amber (hardened tree resin) with animals trapped inside. The deposits date from the mid-Cretaceous, around 100m years ago, and contain not just insects but also vertebrates such as snakes. In contrast, amber from the Baltic or Caribbean is less clear, less rich or younger.

A separatist group in Kachin has fought the national army there since the 1960s. Both sides are thought to have profited from mining and illicit sales of amber. In 2019 fact-finders from the un reported that government soldiers were forcing miners to work and subjecting them to violence.

Recently demand in China for amber from Myanmar has surged—largely because China’s own mines have dried up and partly because an anti-corruption push reduced the appetite for jade, a rival gem associated with bribes. From 2009 to 2015, amber exports to China rose from a trickle to perhaps over 100 tonnes per year, worth some $1bn. Most is used in jewellery, but researchers also scour markets to scoop up stones containing fossils.

This amber sits in a legal grey area. In 2015 Myanmar began requiring authorisation for exports of fossils. But in 2019 it classified amber as an exportable gemstone, without any carve-out for fossils.

As supply has surged, so has research. A forthcoming paper in Communications Biology finds that 113 papers were published per year in 2015-21 about amber from Myanmar, compared with eight in 1999-2014. According to Andrew Ross of National Museums Scotland, 365 new species were found in amber from Kachin in 2020. Just 342 were identified from 1916 to 2013.

Are such discoveries ethically justifiable? Myanmar has become a pariah state, committing atrocities against minorities, democrats and others. Generals have seized power and tried to crush dissent (unsuccessfully). Two journals have banned papers on amber from Myanmar, and some others require documentation.

However, any effort to restrict such research must be broad to be effective. Most of the new scholarship on this amber comes from China: of 865 papers published since the start of 2015, 417 had Chinese lead authors. Unless Chinese journals, universities and museums join in, palaeontology may continue to rely on amber obtained from Myanmar’s grim, army-run mines.

Sources: “Ethics, law, and politics in palaeontological research: The case of Myanmar amber”, by E. Dunne et al., Communications Biology, 2022, working paper; Kachin Development Networking Group; Andrew Ross, National Museums Scotland; press reports

This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline "Fossil feuds"

From the September 24th 2022 edition

Discover stories from this section and more in the list of contents

Explore the edition

More from Graphic detail

The difficulties of getting an abortion in Italy

Women are already having to travel across the country to find a willing doctor

Japan’s government props up the yen for the first time since 1998

The intervention will not fix the currency’s underlying weaknesses

The most liveable cities in the Middle East and Africa

Living conditions are improving—but familiar problems remain