The return of Ubirajara

Image: Alejandro Quintanar


Of incalculable scientific importance, it is the first feathered dinosaur fossil in the Americas.

Ubirajara jubatus, cearense from the Cretaceous period, took thirty years to be repatriated from Germany. Of incalculable scientific importance, it is the first fossil of a feathered dinosaur from the Americas, denying that they were exclusive to other continents. Dinosaurs have been extinct for millions of years, but some of them are ancestors of birds.

The illegal trade in Brazilian fossils is intense, ancient and prosperous, although it is rare to be caught and even more so to be returned. Ubirajara now rests at home, at the Museum of Paleontology at the Regional University of Cariri. Chapada do Araripe is known as one of the country's richest sites in fossils and cave paintings: its plunder is immemorial. The Brazilian paleontologists who led the collection had the support of colleagues from all over the world, which was decisive.

José de Alencar, who came from Ceará, was one of the most reputed writers in Brazil who brought the name-calling into vogue. author of the novel ubirajara, male counterpart to Iracema, the virgin with the lips of honey, was inspired by the Indianism that was a prerogative of Romanticism. Other than that, almost all of us have a cousin with that name, coming from the period when it was fashionable to give indigenous names to children, or change yours.

Who had fun with that was Gilberto Freyre, who in Casa Grande & Senzala examined the first outbreak of fashion, caused by the Independence of 1822. It was a sign of patriotism. In these anti-Portuguese outbursts, the Fonseca Galvão family of plantation owners dropped their traditional surname and replaced it with the indigenous one from Carapeba, which according to him was horrible.

But it is good news and is signaling an auspicious shift in the winds of decolonization. After long skirmishes, we saw France return some items to nations in Africa. President Emmanuel Macron set the example of goodwill, which is surprising but commendable. Just from fossils, it appears that France has 998 of ours, with requested repatriation. The United States has already returned one, in 2021. Ubirajara has become the flag of a much broader movement supported by scientists from around the world.

Now, Egypt has officially requested the Rosetta Stone again, already claimed in 2003. Countries and museums do not talk, on the pretext that they are guardians of these treasures for all humanity, as stated in the recent manifesto of the 30 main museums in the world: a good example of mentality colonialist. The British Museum has even made a replica of the Stone in fiberglass and presented it to the Egyptians, who are inaugurating the gigantic museum in Giza, close to the pyramids.

There is a very modern and ostentatious version of the Cairo Museum, cramped and old-fashioned, but which still holds the record for the best in the world in Egyptology. The others at the top of the hierarchy – the one in Turin, the one in Berlin, the Louvre, the Metropolitan – even added together, they don’t reach his feet. Because it contains the remains of Tutankhamun, the only pharaoh whose tomb has survived intact, all the others having been subjected to the action of looters for millennia. How naive to think that a copy can carry the aura of a single object...

The dispute over the Rosetta Stone stems from Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, which was both a military fiasco and a scientific triumph. The French were defeated by the English, who kidnapped the Stone and took it to London. But the invasion would result in Description of l´Egypte in 10 volumes of large format text plus 13 of boards with illustrations, conceived in the best model of Encyclopedia.

Napoleon recruited an “army of scholars” in the spirit of the Enlightenment of the XNUMXth century: hundreds of naturalists, zoologists, botanists, draughtsmen and engravers, painters, geographers, architects, historians, linguists…

The edition by the Committee of Sciences and Arts of the expedition, rightly called monumental, took decades to prepare, in line with the tons of material that demanded processing and organization. But today it can be consulted Online, or, for those who prefer books, in a current popular edition, minimalist even in price, in a single volume and small size, with a thousand pages.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reading and rereading (Sesc\Ouro over Blue).

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