Pirates of paleontology: the growing threat from fossil hunters | Catalonia


Chiqui L. has followed the advice of the police and has deleted most of the videos she had posted. Is (or was) a youtuber of paleontology. This 48-year-old man, fond of fossils and minerals from a very young age, decided to publicly tell about his adventures. In the images he is seen extracting remains of protected sites, explaining how objects can be cleaned with bleach, passionately displaying the small and ancient treasures that he finds in remote corners of the Catalan geography: “Pyrites and dinosaur footprints: the gold of the crazy ”.

Applauded by others crazy of the fossil like him and criticized by professional archaeologists and paleontologists, the videos reached the ears of the Mossos d’Esquadra, which after an investigation that included monitoring of Chiqui, obtained the authorization of a judge to search his house and investigate him for a crime against the Heritage. In the garden, in the garage, in the living room cabinets and even in the attic, agents found the spoils of almost three decades of illegal activity.

The historical heritage laws – which are also a bit fossilized: the Spanish one dates from 1985 and the Catalan one from 1993 – protect the deposits, consider fossils as public domain and prohibit extracting or selling them without authorization. The Mossos believe that it is difficult for Chiqui to claim, as many others do when they are discovered, that he was ignorant of these regulations. He is an expert amateur: copies of tiara –A specialized magazine– and specific tools of the trade. Also, he is not a newbie. He treasured fossils from Brazil, Bolivia or Morocco that, years ago, he tried to exhibit in a room of the City Hall of Vacarisses (Barcelona): he did not obtain the permits because he could not prove the origin of the pieces.

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Image of the fossils seized from Chiqui L.
Image of the fossils seized from Chiqui L.THE COUNTRY

A booming hobby

Because of his voracity and perseverance, even because of his vast knowledge, Chiqui’s is a rare case. But the Mossos warn that, more and more, they run into people who go out to look for fossils like those who go out to look for mushrooms. “People have the feeling that what is in the field, or under the ground, belongs to no one and they can take it. It is not like that ”, explains Sergeant Josep González, head of the Central Unit for Historical Heritage. For many of them it is an innocent hobby, a passion. They are moved by the adventure of going out into the mountains and looking for a hidden treasure, the pleasure of finding it … and the need to share it. “For a couple of years, we have seen that there are people who show their skills on social networks, as if they were Indiana Jones,” says González.

If they touch archaeological remains, hobbyists – armed with metal detectors – know they may be getting into trouble. But with paleontology, the perception of risk decreases. “It gives the feeling that it is something that has been done all the life and that nothing happens”, says Maite Miró, head of the Archeology and Paleontology service of the Generalitat. Miró notes that inquiries to Amateur Culture requesting permits to search and excavate have grown. But remember that authorizations are issued only to professionals (biologists, geologists, historians, etc.) with a scientific project behind them. And it warns that, whoever goes free, is exposed to an administrative offense or, in the most serious cases, to a crime.

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In Catalonia alone there are more than 12,000 sites and points of interest. It is practically impossible to apply any surveillance measure on spaces that, in addition, are usually very extensive and many times are not even marked, Miró admits. This is how Chiqui was able to break into Hostalets de Pierola, an important Miocene site, among many others. Although the Mossos believe he did not sell the pieces, but only collected them, there is a black market that also worries the authorities.

In 2017, González recalls, the Mossos detained two men in Amer (Girona) for looting sites and exporting their finds (bracelets, arrowheads, dinosaur and invertebrate fossils) to countries such as the United States and Japan. Some of the material was forged: they sold souvenirs with African or Mayan motifs as if they were from the Neolithic. Last year, the Catalan police intervened more than 8,000 remains looted over 25 years in Lleida, Barcelona and Huesca by a neighbor of Igualada (Barcelona) known as “the lord of the crabs” for his fondness for accumulating fossils of this species. The man has accepted this week to be sentenced to pay a fine.

The Mossos recall that the activity of these fans, however well-intentioned it may be, damages the heritage. Without scientific methodology, the extraction of remains can mean the loss of information about the context in which the object is located and cause irreparable damage. “They are not professionals and many times they end up damaging the remains,” explains Jonatan Herrera, head of the central area of ​​investigation of heritage of the Mossos. “I do not doubt that it can be a beautiful and recreational activity – Herrera concludes – but if we allow looting, it is as if we have a history book and let each one cut out a word.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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