BEIJING--Fourteen tons of Chinese fossils are back in their native country after a failed attempt to smuggle them into the United States. The shipment, which includes a 225-million-year-old ichthyosaur, arrived here earlier this month and were shown publicly a year after U.S. Customs seized the smuggled shipment in San Diego, California.
Almost all of the 110 pieces of fossils, packed in 93 boxes, are believed to have originated in Guizhou Province in southern China. They date from the early part of the late Triassic period, 227 million to 220 million years ago, when reefs in the region were drowned by anoxic, 500-meter-deep water--ideal conditions for preservation. In addition to a 4- to 5-meter-long ichthyosaur and a number of echinoderms called crinoids or sea lilies, the cache includes 10 specimens of a marine reptile called Keichousaurus and some fish fossils.
Science was not able to piece together the circumstances that led U.S. officials to act. Officials from China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage say that the fossils were seized in June 2001 by the U.S. Customs Service as they arrived in San Diego. that Customs officials contacted Chinese diplomats in New York to arrange for the return of the material. An agency spokesperson declined to provide any information about the case, however, saying that "it is the long-standing policy of the U.S. Customs Service to not discuss matters that may relate to investigation."
The reshipment, which Chinese officials say is the largest of its kind, is part of the country's ongoing campaign to protect its cultural and scientific relics against looters. "They are very precious fossils," says Li Jianjun, executive deputy curator of the Beijing Natural History Museum, where the fossils are now housed. "To our joy, we have found that 90% of the fossils" have not been tampered with, as can happen with fossils sold on the black market (Science, 22 December 2000, p. 2224). Chinese paleontologists welcome the windfall. "I am happy to see them back," says paleontologist Wang Xiaofeng of the Yichang Institute of Geology and Mineral Resources in Hubei Province.
Beijing Museum of Natural History