Fossils entombed in amber provide exceptional and unique insights into the morphology and evolution of organisms that inhabited past forest ecosystems1. Amber, which is fossilised plant resin, of various geological ages can be found in several parts of the world, including the Baltic region of Europe, Alaska, Madagascar, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, and Canada. Amber from Myanmar (formerly Burma) is particularly famous for preserving the remains of insects, plants, and reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs during the mid-Cretaceous, approximately 99 million years ago2. However, Myanmar amber has more recently gained international attention due to legal and ethical issues in the discovery, collection, trade, and research of this material3,4,5.
Myanmar has a rich palaeontological heritage, including fossils of the oldest representatives of anthropoid primates6. But by far the most popular fossil finds from the country are those in amber. Most amber is mined in the northern state of Kachin, with many fossils coming from the Hukawng Valley (Fig. 1), though amber is also mined from several other regions7,8. To the international palaeontological community, this region is highly productive in terms of amber fossils, but on the ground, it has endured armed conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar government military forces, the Tatmadaw, since the 1960s, only two decades after the country gained independence from British rule in 1948. Both the KIA and the Myanmar military have funded their activities through profits from the mining industry for decades, through both legal and illegal routes9. The most recent attempt by the military to seize control of the amber mining areas in Kachin State from the KIA occurred in 2017, and soon after, a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission reported on the violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law perpetrated by the military in these areas10. These events have led recent media reports to describe working on Myanmar amber as an ‘ethical minefield’, and to question the ‘human cost’ of working on this material3,4,11.
Several countries have legislation in place to protect fossils from being exported illegally or studied without the involvement of local researchers12. More generally, this kind of legislation protects against extractive research practices, often referred to collectively as ‘parachute science’ (or scientific colonialism), whereby researchers from higher income countries collect specimens or data from lower income countries without engaging with local researchers or communities13,14,15. While Myanmar has national laws and is a signatory of several international conventions that could apply to fossil material in amber (Table 1, Box 1), the domestic regulation of this material’s export has a major loophole16. Most of the amber mined in Kachin State is sent across the Chinese border to Tengchong, where it is sold in large markets to jewellers, private collectors, and palaeontologists4. Permanent export of fossil material from Myanmar is prohibited under the 2015 Protection and Preservation of Antique Objects Law. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property17, an international treaty that entered into force for Myanmar in 2013, also protects cultural property from illicit trafficking (Table 1). For this purpose, the Convention obligates states parties to pass and enforce domestic legislation. However, under the 2019 Myanmar Gemstone Law (and its previous versions) amber is classified as a gemstone and its export can be legal if accompanied with the appropriate paperwork (Table 1). Neither the antiquities law (2015 The Protection and Preservation of Antique Objects Law; Table 1) nor the gemstone law (2019 Myanmar Gem Law; Table 1) explicitly mention amber with fossil inclusions, leading to it falling within a legal grey zone, where the gemstone can in principle be legally exported (with accompanying documentation), but not its fossilised contents.
Due to this seemingly complex legal and ethical situation, the palaeontological community has not yet united on a stance towards the issues surrounding Myanmar amber. In 2020, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) released a letter to editors of palaeontological journal editors, calling for a moratorium on publishing material in Myanmar amber, particularly that acquired after the military took control of the mines in 201718. Responses to these calls have been varied, with some journals declaring support for this move in the form of changes to their editorial policies19,20, while other palaeontologists have strongly disagreed21,22. In 2021, SVP released a second letter calling for a hard moratorium on the publication of fossil material in Myanmar amber obtained after the military coup earlier that year, as well as providing guidelines on researching amber material acquired before this date23.
Numerous publications on spectacularly preserved fossils in Myanmar amber enter the scientific literature each year, and the vast majority of these do not consider the ethical implications of studying this material14, in particular the links between amber mining in Kachin State and the documented human rights abuses by the military. In this study, we use bibliometric and affiliation data from the Web of Science to investigate temporal and geographic trends in Myanmar amber research over the last three decades (1990–2021) and explore how research output is related to national and international legal, commercial, and political developments. Through this investigation, we highlight the need for stronger systemic consideration of the ethical and legal concerns of working on this material, and palaeontological material from other conflict zones around the world.
Trends in Myanmar amber research and collaboration
Over the past three decades, the number of publications on fossil material in Myanmar amber recorded by Web of Science has increased (Fig. 2). A breakpoint is observed around 2014, dividing the time series into two independent periods: pre-2014 (1990–2013) where the increase in publications on Myanmar amber is slow but steady, and post-2014 (2014–2020) where there is a significantly more dramatic increase (Fig. 2 and Table S1). During the first period, pre-2014, the number of publications remained low, but still increased over time (slope = 0.55), with a peak observed around 2005. This changed after the year 2014 when the number of publications started rapidly increasing (slope = 24.8), reaching its highest value in 2020, with a total of 175 recorded publications in that year alone.
As a comparison, we examined the temporal trends in publications on non-amber fossils from Myanmar, such as Cenozoic primates and petrified wood24,25. We observed two breakpoints in the non-amber time series, at the years 2004 and 2016 (Fig. S1). The first publication on non-amber fossils appears in the year 1999 (according to Web of Science), and we see a slow increase over time (slope = 0.25) until 2004 when the number of publications starts to decrease at a similar rate (slope = −0.35) as the previous period (Fig. S1). Finally, we see an increase in the number of publications post-2016 (slope = 1.03). In general, the number of non-amber fossils publications remained quite low, especially when compared with counts of amber fossil publications over the same interval. Note that these identified breakpoints should be taken in the context of the low overall amount of data in this time series.
Most of the research on fossils from Myanmar (~95%) is based on specimens in amber (Fig. 3), with China being a top contributor, followed by the US (Fig. 3). A considerable amount of research is also contributed by European-based authors, especially from Germany, the UK, France, and Poland. Only 3 out of 872 amber publications included co-authors from Myanmar. In contrast, for non-amber publications, the contributions of authors based in Japan (n = 18), Myanmar (n = 17) and the US (n = 16) are comparable. The number of amber publications post-2014 was 35 times higher than the number of non-amber publications, whereas pre-2014, they were only 5 times higher than non-amber ones. In general, the number of amber publications per country (based on author affiliations) was significantly higher (Wilcoxon test: V = 375, p < 0.05) than non-amber publications even after correcting for the expected difference between amber fossils and other fossils (standardised according to the period 2004–2015). No difference between amber and non-amber publications was observed before 2014 (Wilcoxon test: V = 191, p-value > 0.05).
Examining the network of collaborations between authors on amber and non-amber publications, we identified the countries with most power and influence over research trends. Until 2014, researchers from the US led in terms of first-authored amber publications (59%; n = 69) and held the most important position and influence when it came to collaborations, with mostly in-country collaborations occurring during that time (81%; Fig. 4). Since 2014, China has been the dominant country for Myanmar amber research (47%, n = 417) with the US moving to third position (9%, n = 79, Fig. 4 and S2), just behind Germany (9%, n = 81, Fig. 4 and S2). China was not in the top ten countries with lead authorship before 2014 (Fig S2). Multi-author amber publications were also more common post-2014, with only 10% (n = 93) of publications containing a single author after 2014, compared to 36% (n = 43) before 2014.
In-country collaborations (i.e. papers published by authors all affiliated with institutions in the same country) were more prevalent before 2014, with an average of 63% of collaborations being among researchers from the same country, compared with 46% after 2014. Other countries besides China and the US, such as Germany, Russia and Poland, also significantly contributed to amber research post-2014 (Fig. S3). However, when the collaboration network is analysed regardless of authorship order, Germany and the US have the highest betweenness and degree centrality measures both pre- and post-2014 suggesting that these two countries had a high degree of influence on information flow. China has the highest eigenvalue centrality post-2014, providing evidence for its overall influence in amber research (Fig S4).
Political, legal, and economic factors drive research on Myanmar amber
The dramatic increase in Myanmar amber research output observed over the last two decades (Fig. 2) can be explicitly linked to major political, legal, and economic changes. Prior to the 2000s, only one publication on Myanmar amber was recorded in Web of Science: a paper from 1996, which described fossilised ant specimens housed at the Natural History Museum in London that were acquired during colonial times26. At the same time as this publication, the Kachin State mining business was undergoing a radical change. Prior to 1994, mines in Kachin State were under total control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). After a ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces), most mining areas in Kachin State were nationalised and placed under the control of the state-owned Myanmar Gem Enterprise, which regulated mining activity and issued mining licences9,27. In 1995, new legislation exclusively for gemstones, including amber, was introduced, allowing their extraction and marketisation (Table 1). In 1999, a Canadian mining company obtained amber pieces from former miners for radiometric dating purposes that were eventually sent to colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)28,29, kickstarting research on Myanmar amber and leading to the patterns that we observe today (Fig. 2). Myanmar amber, until this point was thought to be of Eocene age, but was ultimately confirmed to be mid-Cretaceous in age30. More amber was sold to the AMNH and some private collectors27,31, which resulted in several publications in the early 2000s (Fig. 2), mostly by researchers based in the US (Fig. 4). During this time, mining operations remained small-scale27,28.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, trade with China began to gain momentum, and at the same time, Chinese amber mines tapped out4. Consequently, demand for Myanmar amber increased, leading to an expansion of mining operations in the Hukawng Valley27,32 (see Fig. 1). In 2011, fighting resumed between the KIA and the Tatmadaw—however, seemingly without affecting amber trade with China, which kept growing27. Reports seem to suggest that the mining and trade were controlled by a commonality of interest from the KIA and the Tatmadaw, where the KIA controlled the mines but the Tatmadaw regulated the different nodes of trade between Kachin State and China27,32. Both armed forces collected taxes on the mines and the transportation of amber and related materials (such as fuel, machinery, and food). As the fighting between the KIA and the Tatmadaw worsened in the lead up to the 2017 military offensive33, the KIA was forced away from the jade and gold mines that they controlled, meaning revenues from amber became even more important.
The year 2014 marked the beginning of a dramatic increase in Myanmar amber research output (Fig. 2). This increase correlates with the increased availability of Myanmar amber, particularly on the Chinese market. Much of the amber mined in Kachin State that is taken across the border to be sold in the markets of Tengchong, China (Fig. 1), is outside of Myanmar’s regulatory landscape, as the cost of custom tax was not deemed to be profitable for traders27. Once in Tengchong, amber can be legally sold on the Chinese market and is subject to state regulations there. Amber can also be bought from the city of Myitkyina in Myanmar (Fig. 1), especially at the Gems and Jewellery Trade Centre, which opened in 201434. However, this tends to be a less lucrative option for Chinese dealers as amber prices tend to be higher here than across the border in Tengchong. As amber availability increased on the Chinese market, the material became more accessible to Chinese palaeontologists and private collectors. These factors combined likely led to the increase in Myanmar amber publications seen from 2014 onwards (Fig. 2). The commercial availability of Myanmar amber is also likely a large factor driving the difference in research interest between amber specimens and non-amber specimens (Fig. 3). In order to obtain non-amber fossils, fieldwork and//or access to fossil collections is necessary, and combined with political events, especially across recent years, this can be prohibitive for collaborations that require international travel.
Prior to 2014, US researchers dominated research output, whereas after 2014, Chinese researchers have a monopoly (Fig. 4). Both before and after 2014, many countries in Europe, such as the UK, Germany, France, and Poland, as well as Australia and Brazil, retained a share of the research output on Myanmar amber (Fig. 4). This is likely due to their legacy of expertise on the topic of both Myanmar amber and amber from other regions (e.g. Baltic and Dominican amber), as well as on the topic of palaeoentomology (study of fossil insects, which are frequently found preserved in amber). Several of these countries also dominate research output on non-amber fossils from Myanmar (Fig. 3), which is related to their general positions as centres of power and knowledge in the field of palaeontology more broadly14.
The total number of publications on Myanmar amber published in 2021 (n = 157) did not surpass the 2020 total (n = 175) (Fig. 2). The total for 2022 (n = 68 at the time of writing) also does not seem set to surpass the 2021 total. This might indicate the beginning of a change in publishing trends and a diminished interest in Myanmar amber research, perhaps due to increased scrutiny from the palaeontological community. This could also be a result of knock-on effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted the scientific publishing process and restricted international travel, particularly travel to museums, other research institutions, and field sites.
Palaeontological research and collaboration in Myanmar
While the post-2014 boom in amber trade increased the accessibility of fossil specimens to Chinese researchers, and by extension, to other international researchers, it failed to do so for local Myanmar palaeontologists (Figs. 3 and 4). The development of the research landscape in Myanmar goes hand in hand with the political changes that have occurred in the country since independence from the United Kingdom in 194835. Until the 1962 coup that marked the beginning of the political dominance of the military in the country, post-colonial Myanmar experienced a boom in university admissions and the government was making various investments in the academic sector36. Following this coup, universities lost autonomy over their budgets, and tighter restrictions were put in place on research and travel by Myanmar scholars as well as foreign academics35. Such restricting and isolationist policies remained in place, curbing research and academic exchange among scholars, until political reforms in the late 2000s and early 2010s, in the lead up to 2015 democratic elections. This is reflected in the research output by Myanmar researchers, which remained low until the early 2010s (Fig. S5), and also in the research of non-amber fossils found in the country during that time (Fig. S1).
In Myanmar, international research collaborations are vital for strengthening palaeontological research, and scientific research more broadly, and so it is critical that these international partnerships are equitable and sustainable5. The Eocene-age Podaung Formation in Myanmar, which contains fossils of the oldest representatives of anthropoid primates (the taxonomic group that includes monkeys, apes, and humans), has been the focus of several field efforts in the last century. The first fossils were collected in 1914, but no further work occurred until the late 1990s6,37. Given the attention that such fossils from Myanmar and other Asian regions were getting at the time, the government organised a fieldwork expedition to the Podaung Formation in 1997, aiming to “enhance the stature of the country”38. In the following years, joint fieldwork expeditions took place between Myanmar research teams and teams from the US, Japan, and France. Many of these international collaborations persist to this day, resulting in several publications over the years (e.g6,39.). Critically, we found that many of these publications on primate (i.e. non-amber) fossils include researchers from Myanmar as co-authors, which is in stark contrast to amber publications that rarely indicate collaborations with local researchers (Fig. 3).
Only five out of 872 (0.06%) publications on Myanmar amber in our dataset include researchers based in Myanmar as co-authors (Fig. 3). For three of these co-authored publications, the authors listed as being affiliated with an institution in Myanmar have Chinese institutions as their primary affiliations. Their Myanmar affiliations are listed as the Southeast Asia Biodiversity Research Institute in Myanmar, which was established by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Myanmar Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation in 2013 through bilateral agreements with the aim of carrying out collaborative research and providing training to young people in South East Asia40. Only two of these publications have authors with primary affiliations in Myanmar. The first lists an author based at the Myanmar Amber Museum in Yangon (myanmarambermuseum.org), an institution which also sells amber specimens. The other discusses the issue of parachute science with respect to Myanmar amber research, written by two authors of this study5. What we observed here is an extreme form of parachute science where instead of fieldwork, amber specimens are obtained through commercial routes and are apparently not regulated accordingly by national laws relating to fossils or gemstones (Table 1). As such, the mechanisms driving research on Myanmar amber are distinct from those driving other palaeontological work that conforms to national legislations and promotes collaboration between Myanmar and foreign researchers. Curbing parachute science and other unethical or illegal research practices is of the utmost importance as this leads to the erasure of invaluable local expertise and perpetuates the global power and knowledge imbalances in palaeontology12,14.
Legal and ethical considerations for Myanmar amber research
The large amount of amber that is moved across the Chinese border to be sold to jewellers, collectors, and palaeontologists indicates that Myanmar’s enforcement of its national laws is seriously deficient16, suggesting that it insufficiently implements the UNESCO Convention which not only requires adopting export restrictions on cultural objects (Art. 6(b)) but also the imposition of penalties or administrative sanctions on individuals violating those restrictions (Art. 8). However, the current Myanmar amber economy also strongly relies on China who also is a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention (see Table 1). As such, China has an international legal obligation to prevent illicit trafficking of cultural objects, which is likely being violated while tons of amber are smuggled into the country. If Myanmar, as a party to the UNESCO Convention whose cultural patrimony is in jeopardy, were to call upon China as a state party also affected by this situation, China would even face an obligation to cooperate to bring an end to this threat to Myanmar’s cultural patrimony (Art. 9 UNESCO Convention). Some countries, such as Brazil, Argentina, and Mongolia, have national laws that control the export and study of fossils. The presence of these kinds of laws in a country often correlates with more domestic production of palaeontological research (as opposed to the fossils being studied by researchers based outside the country of origin)13,14. This demonstrates the need for governments and law enforcement to work alongside research institutions, museums, palaeontologists and fossil collectors in order to ensure that existing national laws are adhered to and updated based on best practices from other countries.
Scientific publications describing fossil specimens in Myanmar amber rarely, if ever, provide evidence that their material was obtained legally. Since the letter released by the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology SVP in April 202018, the legal issues associated with Myanmar amber have been even more prominent within the palaeontological community. Despite this, only 9 out of 222 (4%) publications released since this date (i.e June 2020–June 2022) refer in any way to legal or ethical issues associated with the material they describe (Table S3). Among these, only two41,42 provide a detailed description of how their specimen was ethically acquired and accessioned alongside details of documentation to support this. In both cases, this procedure is in line with guidelines set out by SVP, discussed in more detail below18,23. The majority of these statements appear to distance themselves from the legal and ethical issues associated with Myanmar amber by declaring the specimens were collected ethically and/or legally, but without providing any documentation or evidence of this (Table S3). Furthermore, the majority of the publications that we examined only provided vague information about the location of the fossil material, for example “obtained from a mine” or “collected from Hukawng Valley”, without further supporting material such as coordinates or a map, likely because this information was not recorded in the first instance during collection. The absence of this information can lead to the loss of important contextual data (e.g. ability to geologically date the material), making this research difficult to critically analyse or even reproduce.
Numerous recent media reports have described Myanmar amber as an ‘ethical minefield’ and note the ‘human cost’ of working on this material3,4,11. In the lead-up to the takeover of the mines by the Tatmadaw in 2017, several attacks were launched in the amber mining regions, displacing thousands of people, who lost their homes and livelihood32. While the government claimed that its actions were to protect the environment, the aim may have been to control the mining operations given the ever-increasing demand and popularity of amber27, especially when a dinosaur tail preserved in amber was found and published at the end of 2016 (Fig. 2). The United Nations (UN) condemned the military offensive, and a UN fact-finding mission reported violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in Kachin State, including forced labour, torture, abductions, and sexual violence10. Amber continues to be mined in hazardous and dangerous conditions, as a result of both the nature of the mine shafts and the continuing conflict in the region43,44. According to recent reports, illegal mining for amber (as well as for gold and jade) in Kachin State by groups affiliated with the military has intensified since the coup in early 2021, which has led the UN to suspend climate work with the Myanmar government45. As of August 2021, the state of emergency declared following this year’s military coup is set to remain in place until at least August 202346.
Some authors have said that there is no evidence that the military generates any significant revenue directly from amber containing fossils47. Given that most of the trade in these specimens occurs within a shadow economy where revenues go largely undeclared27, it would indeed be difficult to estimate the true revenue that the military or other parties receive. However, it is indisputable that amber is a significant source of income for the military27,32, and that fossil finds have directly influenced the increase in amber trade32 (Fig. 2). During the military takeover of the mines in 2017, the Tatmadaw collected taxes on all amber transport routes into China–a route often taken by fossils in amber–where the annual value of the trade is estimated at 1 billion USD a year32. Later that year the Tatmadaw moved to take over the amber trade at the source, instigating a humanitarian crisis10,32. The palaeontological community must acknowledge the contribution of research interest in Myanmar amber to the larger scale issues occurring in the country.
Ethical and equitable research in palaeontology
In February 2022, SVP released guidance documents on carrying out research and publishing on amber material for researchers, research institutions, and journals, their editors and peer reviewers (available at: https://vertpaleo.org/governance-documents/). These include specific guidelines on the considerations researchers should take when preparing and reviewing manuscripts, including ensuring that appropriate documentation is available to attest to the provenance of amber specimens. It is yet to be seen whether these guidelines will be adopted widely by researchers aiming to carry out research on amber or by journals catering for such research. In addition, SVP revised the 2020 moratorium on specimens acquired post-2017; instead, authors are now recommended to provide documentation for the legal and ethical acquisition of their amber specimens. At the same time, SVP also called for a moratorium for any amber material acquired after the military coup, which began in February 2021 and is still ongoing at the time of writing.
The most ethical and equitable research projects feature input from all involved parties, both local and foreign, in order to develop research agendas that are built on mutual respect and the needs and interests of local people12,14,48. Researchers who are working on amber specimens from Myanmar should, therefore, reach out to Myanmar-based researchers who can provide greater expertise on the geology and palaeontology of the area of interest. Due to the drain in material and the high cost (relative to funds held by researchers in Myanmar) of acquiring amber specimens, local researchers are excluded from working on these specimens themselves, despite them originating from their home country (Figs. 3 and 4). This inhibits the development of local expertise and exacerbates the systemic inequalities presented here and in palaeontology more widely12,14,49. Researchers based in Myanmar are contactable through the usual professional channels (e.g. institutional webpages, publication authorship details, and academic social platforms). In fact, the authorship for this paper was established through cold emailing, and the entirety of the communication for this research collaboration was conducted virtually.
Museums can also play a part in paving the way towards more ethical research on Myanmar amber. Many museums, particularly in the US and Europe, already house large collections of Myanmar amber specimens. Museums that are part of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) should adhere to the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums50 that lists the basic principles for acquisition of any material and the need for due diligence. Raising awareness about and supporting the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural material is one of ICOM’s highest priorities and by extension, that of its members. Museums can also assist in the establishment of local repositories in Myanmar, facilitate access and sharing of material, and provide training to Myanmar-based researchers and students.
Future outlook and broader implications for palaeontological research
The case of fossil material in Myanmar amber is a clear example of exploitative (or ‘extractive’) research in palaeontology, centred around the principles of ‘parachute science’ and scientific colonialism. Our findings document a direct link between research output and political, legal, and economic changes happening within the country. The situation surrounding Myanmar amber is complex and ever-evolving, but nonetheless shows how scientific research does not happen in a vacuum, and is regularly impacted by several interconnected external factors. For the field of palaeontology, this case highlights the importance of conducting and promoting ethical, equitable, and sustainable research practices that centre the needs and interests of local communities. Researchers must also take time to become familiar with the regulatory and cultural landscape of the location where they intend to conduct field research to avoid conduct that is unethical and/or illegal. International collaborations should always include local researchers, who can provide unparalleled expertise and insights, even beyond scientific knowledge13,14. Additionally, funders, societies, editors, and peer reviewers must remain vigilant about ethical and legal issues in palaeontology to avoid perpetuating exploitative research practices (‘parachute science’). Palaeontology, and the geosciences more broadly, are currently grappling with overdue conversations around the societal and economic impact of their research practices, and action is urgently required. No matter how tenable the link between the scientific work and reported violations, our understanding of ancient life and its evolution should never come at the expense of human rights and human lives.