Feature

Troubled treasure

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Science  24 May 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6442, pp. 722-729
DOI: 10.1126/science.364.6442.722

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Summary

In a bustling market in Tengchong, China, vendors hawk globs of amber, some the size of cantaloupes, with astonishingly pristine fossils inside. Mined across the border in Myanmar, the amber has yielded extraordinary finds—the hatchlings of primitive birds, the feathered tail of a dinosaur, frogs, snakes, a host of insects, and more—allowing scientists to build a detailed chronicle of life in a tropical forest 100 million years ago. But this Burmese amber is an ethical minefield. The fossils come from conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar, where scientists can't inspect the geology and rival political factions compete for the profit yielded by amber and other natural resources. The amber is then smuggled into China and sold to the highest bidder. Yet if scientists don't engage in the amber trade, specimens are lost to science.

  • * Joshua Sokol is a journalist based in Boston. Wudan Yan, a journalist based in Seattle, Washington, contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.