Mix doesn't support your web browser. For a better experience, we recommend using another browser.
Caroline Rose
Troubled treasureMined in a conflict zone and sold for profit, fossils in Burmese amber offer an exquisite view of the Cretaceous—and an ethical quandary. ![Figure][1] The 3.5-centimeter tail of a baby dinosaur (left) shows how its feathers were structured and arranged. PHOTO: ROYAL SASKATCHEWAN MUSEUM/R. C. MCKELLAR On an overcast spring morning, a mosaic of life in the heyday of the dinosaurs takes shape piece by piece in this border city. It sprawls across hundreds of tables, on sheets spread by storefronts, and under glass counters in shops. Some vendors hawk jade or snacks, but most everyone is here for the amber: raw amber coated in gray volcanic ash; polished amber carved into smiling Buddhas; egg-size dollops of amber the color of honey, molasses, or garnet. Some browsers seek treasure for their own collections, whereas others act as virtual dealers, holding amber pieces in front of their smartphones and snapping images for distant buyers. For scientists, this is more than a place to buy pendants or bracelets. One morning in March, paleontologist Xing Lida from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing stops at a table and examines a cockroach in a golf ball–size glob of amber, paused in time from the middle of the Cretaceous period. Its intact limbs curve off a body that looks smaller and narrower than that of today's household pests. The dealer wants about $900. “It's an OK price,” Xing says. But he moves on, hunting rarer, more scientifically valuable game. Within a few minutes, a stranger notices Xing, shoots video of him, and posts it to social media. With 2.6 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, the baby-faced, hypercharismatic Xing is a celebrity for his studies of dinosaur tracks and other adventures ( Science , 23 June 2017, p. [1224][2]). Last year, he published 25 scientific papers and a dinosaur-related fantasy novel with a foreword by Liu Cixin, the country's superstar science fiction author. But Xing, like a few other Chinese paleontologists, is also lionized for the extraordinary discoveries he has made in this amber: the hatchlings of primitive birds, the feathered tail of a dinosaur, lizards, frogs, snakes, snails, a host of insects. Much as 19th century naturalists collected species from teeming rainforests in far-flung locales, these scientists are building a detailed chronicle of life in a tropical forest 100 million years ago, all from amber mined across the border in Myanmar. “Right now we're in this frenzy, almost an orgy” of discovery, says paleontologist David Grimaldi, curator of the amber collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Hundreds of scientific papers have emerged from the amber finds, and Chinese scientists hint that many specimens have yet to be published, including birds, insect species by the thousands, and even aquatic animals such as crabs or salamanders. But as much as Burmese amber is a scientist's dream, it's also an ethical minefield. The fossils come from conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar, where scientists can't inspect the geology for clues to the fossils' age and environment. In Kachin, rival political factions compete for the profit yielded by amber and other natural resources. “These commodities are fueling the conflict,” says Paul Donowitz, the Washington, D.C.–based campaign leader for Myanmar at Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization. “They are providing revenue for arms and conflict actors, and the government is launching attacks and killing people and committing human rights abuses to cut off those resources.” ![Figure][1] Paleontologist Xing Lida (right) inspects fossils preserved in amber for sale at the Tengchong, China, market. PHOTO: J. SOKOL/ SCIENCE Much of the amber is smuggled into China in a trade that Tengchong officials and traders ballparked at between $725 million and $1 billion in 2015 alone. In China, jewelers, private collectors, and scientists like Xing exchange vast sums of cash through mobile payment apps to compete for prized specimens. The collectors often win the bidding, meaning researchers can study many specimens only on loan. The mixture of commerce and science “raises new questions that we have not faced … in paleontology before,” says Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas in Austin who often edits papers on Burmese amber. But given that the amber will be sold even if scientists don't buy in, she says, “What's the other prospective outcome?” That's what drives Xing to the market. “If we don't get a specimen, it probably becomes cheap jewelry around some young girl's neck.” SOME 99 MILLION YEARS before this spring market and about 220 kilometers away in what is now Myanmar, a balmy seaside forest echoed with the calls of strange creatures. The trees bled massive quantities of resin when insects attacked them or storms broke off limbs. The resin puddled and pooled, miring countless creatures “like a mini–La Brea Tar Pits,” says paleontologist Ryan McKellar at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Canada. Over time, the resin's frankincenselike gases evaporated; its molecules linked into polymers and hardened into what we now call amber. Amber excels at preserving fine detail and soft tissue, says Victoria McCoy, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn in Germany. On contact, resin seeps into tissues, protecting the entombed animals and plants from fungus and rot while also drying them out. Later, the resin hardens to form a shell that further protects the fossil inclusions. In the best cases, “cellular- or even subcellular-level details are still preserved,” she says. ![Figure][1] A soldier from the Kachin Independence Army patrols a village abandoned after fighting near the amber mines in northern Myanmar. PHOTO: © HKUN LAT Amber from other major deposits—specimens that wash up on beaches in Baltic countries or are mined in the Dominican Republic—is far younger. It also rarely traps strong, active creatures, such as dragonflies, or any vertebrates beyond a few lizards. Burmese amber, in contrast, has revealed a phantasmagoria of creatures, thanks to the vast quantities coming out of the ground and the fact that single pieces regularly approach the size of cantaloupes. As Grimaldi expresses it: Imagine giving an entomologist a bigger bug net and allowing them to swing it more times. It's not just insects and other creepy-crawlies. “It's the vertebrates that are absolutely, truly astonishing,” says Andrew Ross, head of paleobiology for National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. In 2018, scientists reported 321 new species immaculately preserved in Burmese amber, bringing the cumulative total to 1195. One team recently argued that Burmese amber may boast more biodiversity than any other fossil deposit from the entire reign of the dinosaurs. “You think this can't even be possible,” says Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, “but it's happening.” Single fossils within that bonanza illuminate how creatures lived and where they fit into the tree of life. Taken together, the finds benchmark the birth of lineages and ecological relationships that still undergird modern ecosystems. Most of that scientific bounty passes through the bustling market here in Tengchong. And before that, it emerges from a conflict zone. IN 2014 , Xing sneaked into Myanmar, hoping to see the source of the specimens that had captivated him. The amber comes from mines near Tanai township in Kachin, where for decades Myanmar's army and the local Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic insurgency, have battled over control of lucrative resources such as jade, timber, and, most recently, amber. Foreigners are not allowed into Tanai. To make his clandestine visit, Xing first traveled across the border some 110 kilometers to Myitkyina, the Myanmar-side hub of the amber trade. When the road seemed safe, a friend smuggled him north dressed in a longyi , a traditional Myanmarese wrap skirt. ![Figure][1] GRAPHIC: N. DESAI/ SCIENCE Xing and other visitors to the mines describe a lush terrain transformed into barren hillsides. Tents cover claustrophobic holes up to 100 meters deep but only wide enough for skinny workers, who say they are responsible for their own medical care after accidents. The miners dig down and, when they hit layers of amber, tunnel horizontally with hand tools to dig it out. They sort finds at night, to avoid publicizing valuable discoveries. Amber with fossil inclusions is the most precious, proof after weeks of uncertainty that a mine will be profitable. Reached by phone through an interpreter, miners say both warring sides demand bribes for the rights to an area and equipment—and then tax 10% of the profit. Xing hasn't yet published his full conclusions from that trip, but he and others suspect the origins of the amber may be more complicated than thought. The oft-quoted age of 99 million years comes from radiometric dating of volcanic ash bought from a miner and published in 2012. But Wang Bo, a paleontologist at Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGPAS) in China, thinks the recent wave of amber has a range of ages. He had a friend with Myanmarese citizenship gather more recent samples of volcanic ash, which Wang says show that the amber deposits span at least 5 million years. “It's a period,” he says, “not just a point.” ![Figure][1] Workers in Myanmar's Kachin state dig narrow amber mines that may plunge 100 meters deep. Miners say they are responsible for their own medical care after accidents. PHOTOS: (LEFT TO RIGHT) © HKUN LAT; MO LI Miners and traders aren't concerned with details of geology, however. After the amber is extracted and roughly sorted, scooters, cars, boats, and elephants carry it to dealers either in Myitkyina or straight across the border to Tengchong. Myanmar law explicitly bars exporting fossils without permission—but amber is classified as a gemstone and so is allowed to leave. China, however, taxes jewelry imports, so dealers here say they smuggle amber in—for example, in the wheel wells of cars. In Tengchong's market that “shadow economy” emerges into broad daylight, wrote anthropologist Alessandro Rippa at the University of Colorado in Boulder in a 2017 anthropological study. Local authorities not only tolerate, but police the market, which has been an economic boon. Scientists didn't take long to notice. Since the 1920s, a small collection at London's Natural History Museum offered scientists their only glimpse of the diversity of life inside Burmese amber. Then, during a cease-fire in the late 1990s, a small Canadian company started to mine amber in Kachin. It shipped 75 kilograms of raw amber to Grimaldi. He found that each kilogram he acid washed, cut, and polished contained an average of 46 organisms. In the early 2010s, the market here started to boom just as amber mines inside China became tapped out. Demand rose for new amber sources—and that trickle of amber fossils from Myanmar turned into a flood. BEFORE XING'S MARCH VISIT to the bustling outdoor market, he had already arranged to make a purchase after seeing pictures sent to his phone. Now, in a dimly lit amber jewelry shop, a camera-shy 20-something broker from Myitkyina delivers today's prize: two lizards in amber. On one, the skin and flesh have vanished in patches, revealing delicate bones. Given the pace of commerce here, a museum, with its bureaucracy and budgeting process, could never compete for that specimen. Xing simply takes out his smartphone and taps a payment app to buy it for a few hundred dollars—a good deal, he says, because this piece is too cloudy and jumbled to make attractive jewelry. In 2014, Xing began to cultivate a network of buyers here and in Myitkyina and teach them to spot the claws of a Cretaceous bird wing or to count the toes that would tell whether a foot came from a lizard or a dinosaur. Once he gets a tip, he texts a picture to specialists, hoping to figure out whether a specimen's likely scientific importance justifies steep prices. Only then will he decide to buy. Receiving Xing's texts is “like Christmas every time,” McKellar says. Scientists are aware that their identifications can boost prices. Once a specimen has been named as a bird, for example, it might go for tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wang adds, “They will use my word to make money.” “In an ideal world, we shouldn't be bartering and buying and selling fossils,” says paleontologist Emily Rayfield of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, paraphrasing that organization's formal position. “But sometimes there's a need to do that to keep them in, or bring them into, the public trust.” At first, Xing used his own money to buy fossils. Then he persuaded his parents, both doctors, to sell their house in southern China to free up cash. He spent that money by 2016, and he and friends started a nonprofit called the Dexu Institute of Palaeontology (DIP), based in the southern Guangdong province in China, to acquire and house a permanent collection that makes specimens available for other scientists. ![Figure][1] Burmese amber specimens, purchased in commercial markets but studied by scientists, offer a freeze-frame view of life 99 million years ago. 1. Baby snake Amber rarely preserves vertebrates, but this walnut-size nugget from Myanmar contains a new species of snake, Xiaophis myanmarensis . 2. Rare snail The oldest soft tissue of a snail includes part of the head and a tentacle. PHOTOS: (LEFT TO RIGHT) MING BAI/CHINESE ACADEMY OF SCIENCES; XING LIDA/CHINA UNIVERSITY OF GEOSCIENCES, BEIJING Xing has since published papers on enough vertebrates to fill a Cretaceous terrarium, including a baby snake fossil that preserved 97 fragile vertebrae, published in Science Advances ; the front half of a 2-centimeter-long frog, in Scientific Reports ; and his blockbuster result, a feathered dinosaur tail that appears to contain traces of hemoglobin, in Current Biology . But Xing's first and most sustained success has been with tiny birds. Soon after he had built up his network, a source sent him a picture of the first bird discovered in amber. “The price was about the same as a new BMW, but we still got it,” he says. “And we found more, and more, and more after that.” The birds hail from a primitive group called Enantiornithes that went extinct with the other dinosaurs. Amber preserves never-before-seen features of their skin and feathers and may even reveal internal details. “This is a whole new window into avian evolution,” Clarke says. For example, other Chinese bird fossils exhibited flaring tail feathers that had been squished flat inside sedimentary rock. Paleontologists assumed those feathers matched similar ornamental ones in modern birds, which have a central shaft built like a hollow tube. In December 2018, though, Xing published feathers from 31 Burmese amber pieces, which revealed an open, superthin central shaft. Given that those flimsy feathers always appear straight in fossils, they must have been able to snap into a rigid state, like a child's snap-on bracelet. “Now we know, from these 3D amber specimens, that everything we think we see [from flattened fossils] is wrong,” says Jingmai O'Connor, who studies Xing's bird fossils from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. In February, the team published another amber discovery: a bird's foot topped with feathers—an expected but previously unseen evolutionary step for modern birds, which later evolved scaly, featherless feet. ![Figure][1] CREDITS: (GRAPH) N. DESAI/ SCIENCE ; (DATA) ANDREW ROSS The Jurassic Park dream of fishing out DNA from amber hasn't yet come true, despite multiple tests in even very young amber, McCoy says. But amber researchers have reported other chemical traces lingering in their fossils: pigments that reveal how creatures shimmered under the mid-Cretaceous sun, and structural molecules such as chitin from arthropod exoskeletons and lignin and cellulose from plants. Last month, McCoy's group reported recovering amino acids from a feather in Burmese amber, bearing a chemical signature that suggested they had still been bound into fragments of proteins before the test. The next step: to actually sequence ancient proteins, which could offer researchers another way to track evolutionary relationships and understand how organisms lived. But McCoy's experiment involved smashing amber-clad feathers to powder with a hammer. Scientists—and collectors—would prefer other methods to study trapped biomolecules. Researchers have started to experiment with synchrotron imaging, using intense x-rays that cause chemical elements in a sample to fluoresce at distinct wavelengths, for example. “It's going to take a decade for us to figure out how to truly utilize the wealth of information trapped inside these specimens,” O'Connor says. ![Figure][1] 3. Baby frogs The resin exuded by trees in the Cretaceous forest trapped two frogs, whose legs and feet can be seen; one was preserved with a beetle it may have been about to eat. The other includes limbs, fingers, toes, and skin, but lacks its head. 4. Bird wing A hatchling bird left its nest and was mired in resin. Its wing tip shows how feathers attached to wing bones in this extinct group of birds, the Enantiornithes. PHOTOS: (LEFT TO RIGHT) XING LIDA/CHINA UNIVERSITY OF GEOSCIENCES, BEIJING; MING BAI/CHINESE ACADEMY OF SCIENCES As they examine specimens, scientists stay alert for the products of clever forgers. One specimen marketed as Burmese amber and then subjected to chemical tests contained what would have been the first turtle in amber. “But it was fake,” Xing says. ACROSS CHINA at NIGPAS, 2100 kilometers away inside Nanjing's walled historic center, Wang pours tea. Then he starts to pull out bags of labeled insects in amber. Rare vertebrates may be the charismatic megafauna of Burmese amber, but invertebrates rule in numbers and diversity. Wang, a paleoentomologist, has amassed a 30,000-piece collection of plants and insects in Burmese amber, many bought here with funds from his institution. He still hasn't studied it all. “Eventually, we think maybe 4000 or 5000 species can be found,” he says. His lab employs an array of high-tech imaging systems to peer into specimens without destroying them. In one room, a laser confocal microscope causes delicate structures—like the multifaceted eyes of a fly, now splashed from the scope onto an adjacent monitor—to fluoresce. In another room, a computerized tomography (CT) scanner peers inside fossils to make 3D models of internal structure. By applying those techniques, Wang, like his rivals, has unearthed enough 99-million-year-old evolutionary gambits to fill a nature documentary. Take the lacewings, an insect group that today preys on ants and aphids. In one large glob of amber, the extended wing of a butterflylike lacewing shows a decoy eyespot that may have helped misdirect predators. In another, a lacewing larva looks for all the world like a liverwort plant. Still other lacewings have forest floor debris glued onto their backs, a camouflage strategy many modern insects still use. “It's a pity that most of them became extinct,” Wang says, “but we are lucky we found some hidden stories about them.” Some groups have no direct descendants, such as the Haidomyrmecines, nicknamed “hell ants.” They evolved near the base of the ant family tree and sported sharp, sickle-shaped tusks that may have slammed upward to impale other insects. Some, the “unicorn” ants, also had a long top horn, probably used to pin prey in place. “These are like the tyrannosaurs of the ant world,” Grimaldi says, “that you would never know existed if you studied modern living fauna.” Ancestral spiders offer another surprise. In early 2018, Wang and Huang Diying, a researcher at NIGPAS, separately published specimens in Nature Ecology & Evolution with spiderlike bodies trailed by long, scorpionesque tails. Now extinct, those arachnids were holdouts from a very early branch of spider evolution thought to have died out by some 250 million years ago. But in what is now Myanmar, they once crawled alongside the true spiders that persist today. Those protospiders also had silk-spinning organs, evidence that even early arachnids had that power. Of all those riches, the most important may look lackluster: little beetles coated in dots of pollen. They are a clue to a dramatic and quick changeover in life's history that Charles Darwin called “an abominable mystery”: the emergence of the flowering plants, which mostly rely on insect visitors to carry their pollen. Other amber specimens from the same ancient forest show pollen from an older group of trees, the gymnosperms—conifers and ginkgoes—which today are pollinated largely by wind. But some of the pollen on the beetles looks too big to be windblown. The amber, it seems, may capture the moment when many insect groups switched their feeding from gymnosperms to flowering plants, touching off the millions of years of coevolution that led to the extraordinary diversity of flowers and their pollinators today. Studying the evolution of that partnership should help researchers understand why insect groups thrive or fail—a crucial question at a time when entomologists have begun to worry that ongoing climate change could drive a wave of insect extinctions, says paleoentomologist Michael Engel of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Burmese amber fits perfectly into this grand, unfortunate, tragic experiment that is going on with the world right now,” Engel says. ![Figure][1] Paleontologist Wang Bo (left) with collector Xia Fangyuan (right) at Xia's private collection in Shanghai, China. Grateful scientists have named many new species in Xia's honor. PHOTO: DANIELE MATTIOL AFTER PERUSING the outdoor stalls here, Xing moves from shop to shop, sitting down at one elegant tea table after another to chat with owners. Under jewelry store glass counters, these shops showcase ferns, flowers, scorpions, fearsome spiders, and one tiny pinecone. New specimens emerge from the back in plastic bags. One shop even offers a baby bird, its delicate wing—with its telltale claw—clearly visible. But the dealer is asking about $145,000—too much. By day's end, Xing's student has a padded backpack full of invertebrates in plastic cases, as well as the lizards. Next, Xing flies to the nearby major city of Kunming, China, to meet with Xiao Jia, a wealthy private collector and online dealer who lent him that first snake in a piece of amber for study. Along the way, the hustle never stops. After Xiao's driver picks Xing up from the airport, his phone buzzes: A dealer in Myitkyina wants to sell what may be the first fragment of a beehive in amber. Xing discusses buying it with Xiao. If neither of them grabs that specimen, someone else in the same small, deep-pocketed circle might—like Xia Fangyuan, a collector, dealer, and enthusiastic coauthor on about a dozen high-profile papers, who lives across the country in Shanghai, China, and competes with Xing for top specimens. Xia says he spends roughly $750,000 on Burmese amber per year, and grateful scientists like Wang have named species of cockroach, froghopper, parasitoid fly, and caddisfly for him. His vast collection, stored in a bank vault and brought out for visitors at his home, includes a bird, lizards, and a frog. His favorite specimen, he says, is a perfectly preserved insect: a praying mantis he bought for $22,000 that looks like it could cock its head at any moment. Xia's collection also includes a curious shell bought from a dealer who claimed it was a snail. Suspecting that the specimen was something more, he lent it to Wang, who did a CT scan that revealed the internal chambers characteristic of an ammonite—an extinct marine cephalopod resembling a nautilus. The remarkable seashell must have been caught in resin in a beachside forest, perhaps after it was thrown onto land in a storm. Described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ( PNAS ) last week, the specimen remains in Xia's private collection. That arrangement isn't unusual. Chinese collectors hesitate to give specimens to museums outright, Wang says, because China's laws don't offer tax breaks for such donations. But some Western paleontologists are uncomfortable with publishing fossils that remain in private hands. A simple loan of a specimen isn't enough to ensure its long-term preservation or that other researchers can visit and study it for decades and centuries to come. “The whole point of science is that we're generating and testing hypotheses,” Rayfield says. “If we're not able to study specimens anymore, then it simply becomes an exercise at taking someone at their word.” And yet PNAS is far from the only journal to have published specimens from China's private Burmese amber collections. Science Advances (part of the Science family of journals) has also published papers on specimens belonging to Xia, as well as on the amber snake, now housed in an exhibit in the back of Xiao's toy store in a Kunming mall. (Xiao and DIP have arranged for the institute to own that specimen, but it is loaned back to Xiao until 2027.) Pressed on the status of their specimens, both Xiao and Xia—and the scientists with whom they collaborate—say they plan to turn their collections into private museums and that they are committed to accepting requests for study from outside researchers. The PNAS paper lists the ammonite specimen, for example, as belonging to the Lingpoge Amber Museum in Shanghai, an institution that Xia says he is preparing. He says he is negotiating with his district-level government for space. Asked whether that situation meets their policies, the PNAS editorial board issued a written response: “The authors of this article have assured us that the fossil will be made available to qualified researchers.” Experience leaves some amber researchers wary, however. Engel recalls once asking to visit a published specimen from an amber deposit in Jordan. It was housed in what seemed to be a museum that turned out to be run by a collector. “It was basically his basement,” Engel says. “He says, ‘Oh yeah, sure you can examine it—for $10,000.'” Yet the allure of the amber fossils may grow, regardless of ownership—because of scarcity. The supply of amber is far down from its height around 2015, dealers say. As quickly as that window into the Cretaceous opened, it might already be slamming shut. IN JUNE 2017 , helicopters from Myanmar's army buzzed over Tanai. According to news reports, they dropped leaflets warning amber miners and other residents to flee. Airstrikes and roadblocks followed, and Myanmar's army has since pried away the amber mining areas from the Kachin Independence Army. A 2018 report by a United Nations investigator indicated that the actions killed four civilians and trapped up to 5000 people in the area. Citing the army's broader conduct, including in Kachin, another U.N. fact-finding report called for Myanmar's top generals to be investigated for genocide and crimes against humanity. Two former mine owners, speaking through an interpreter in phone interviews, say taxes have been even steeper since government troops took control of the area. Both shut their mines when they became unprofitable after the government takeover, and almost all deep mines are now out of business, dealers here corroborate. Only shallow mines and perhaps a few secret operations are still running. Tracing how revenue from amber funds Myanmar's army and ethnic militias is hard. “As a consumer,” says Donowitz, “by increasing the values of those commodities, by participating in those trades, you are part of that conflict.” That's not the only ethical cloud over these specimens. Many fossil-rich nations, including China, Canada, Mongolia—and Myanmar—have written laws to keep unique fossils inside their borders. Myanmar's rules threaten violators with 5 to 10 years in prison, thousands of dollars in fines, or both. As Burmese amber fossils slip through the gemstone loophole, “It's like Myanmar's cultural heritage, paleontological heritage, is just being wholesale ripped out of the ground and distributed around the world,” Engel says. Xing stresses he wants to extract scientific details, not to own specimens. He says he's sensitive to the issue because many Chinese historical objects now sit in foreign museums. “If one day Myanmar gets peace, and they want to build a museum for amber or build a museum for natural history, [Xing's own institute] would love to return all the specimens to Myanmar,” he says. “It's not going to come free. But yeah, we'd love to return them.” Some paleontologists also hope to see a Burmese amber collection near the mines or at least within the country's borders. “If Myanmar wanted to build a museum about amber,” Grimaldi says, “it would be totally fun to lend my expertise in helping to design and build that. It would be magnificent, and I think it should be done.” In recent months, one private amber museum opened in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city. But in addition to education, its English website also offers amber lots for sale, custom jewelry and fossil procurement, and escorted buying tours to amber markets, suggesting the museum is about commerce as well as preservation. For residents in Tanai, questions about who owns fossils pale in the face of day-to-day security issues. “Right now there is no stability and no rule of law,” says one out-of-work miner in a phone call. But as the formal interview ends, he has a request. He says the miners digging up the amber don't know why scientists care about the insects and other creatures entombed inside it. “If you know,” he says, “please share with us?” Correction (29 May 2019): This story has been updated to reflect the current ownership of the snake in amber specimen. [1]: pending:yes [2]: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/356/6344/1224
How Islam shaped the WestSt Augustine was probably the first major thinker to discuss at length how states use enemies for their own internal purposes. He traces with acid clarity the way in which the Roman Republic begins to collapse from its inner tensions and conflicts once Carthage, the great historic enemy, has been destroyed, and concludes that if you have no means of generating coherence and justice within your own polity, you will always be on the lookout for new enemies on to whom you can displace the threats arising from your own political failures. It is an analysis that applies with uncanny accuracy to a range of modern political phenomena, from the insanity of the nuclear arms race in the Cold War to various more recent mythologies, including some popular characterisations of “the West” against “the Muslim world”. Noel Malcolm’s brilliant study looks at a period not wholly unlike the Cold War: the three centuries during which the Ottoman empire was the unsettling Other to the Western Europe of early modernity. It was a period of sporadic (sometimes very extreme) military collision and long stretches of uneasy stand-off, complicated by the fact that the empire could be and was drawn into the diplomatic and military conflicts between Western states. Malcolm has some wry and intriguing pages on the theological gymnastics required to justify the fairly consistent pro-Ottoman diplomatic policies and strategic alliances of the “Most Christian” kings of France. But his interest, as he states clearly in his introduction, is not so much in the details of diplomatic relations (though the book is a splendid guide to much of this history), nor in the actual development of social and political institutions in the Ottoman world. The focus is on the ways in which Western thinkers used what they knew about Islam and the Levantine world to make points to their own European readership. The utility of having on hand a sort of reversed image of one’s own society is not only its helpfulness for rallying people in solidarity against a manifest threat; it is also about how the real and imagined strengths of this enemy throw light on the failures and weaknesses of one’s own environment. In the process that Malcolm nicely calls “shame-praising”, Western intellectuals can point to the discipline of Ottoman armies, or the visible piety of Muslim citizens, or the orderliness of Levantine households in order to reproach their own societies. Muslim forces are prevailing against Christian ones because Muslim populations exhibit virtues that Christians have forgotten – despite the superior truth of Christian teaching and the innate feebleness of “Orientals” in general (thanks to the hot climate of the region, apparently, which suggests that not enough of these experts had spent time in Thrace or Anatolia in November). Malcolm warns us against taking language appreciative of Muslim societies at face value. He is rightly critical of scholars who have dubbed some 17th century writers as “Islamophile”; they have failed to see that Christian commentators on the Muslim and Ottoman worlds (virtually synonymous in the eyes of most Christians at this time, though some show an awareness of the difference between the Near Eastern, North African and Balkan territories of the Ottoman empire, and the very distinct environment of Persia) will happily deploy contradictory tropes. They may deplore Ottoman tyranny and cruelty, and praise Ottoman discipline and efficiency; magnify the threat of Ottoman expansionism and predict the imminent collapse of the empire depending on the precise point they want to reinforce for home consumption. There is much illumination here about the intricacies of Western perceptions of Islam as a religion, and on the tension between two competing medieval models of Muslim belief, a tension that survives in one form or another well into the early modern period. Is Islam a distorted form of Christianity, a heresy? This was the general view of polemicists in the Byzantine empire, and by the 12th century it was transmitted to the medieval West, when Latin translations of the Quran were beginning to appear. But it stood alongside a rival picture in which Muslims were simply “infidels”, the equivalent of pagans and (ironically, given the Muslim condemnation of image-worship) idolaters, devoted to a false God. The further twist of irony is that there were real advantages for Muslims in being classed as pagans when they lived within Western societies or under Christian rule; it meant that they were not subject to the draconian penalties for heresy. It helped to be more rather than less “Other” for certain purposes. Conversely, it was something of a challenge to Western orthodoxies that the Ottoman empire was unusually tolerant of religious diversity (though the Western texts that use this to condemn official intolerance in their own setting rarely, if ever, make any effort to explain the civic disabilities of non-Muslim populations in the Ottoman empire). Once again, contradictory points were being made for internal Western audiences: the Muslim state was one in which religious and secular authority were combined, yet it was less intolerant of religious minorities than Tudor England; or, because the Sultan was supreme in both religious and secular matters, he was an exact image of the corruptions of the papacy. Playing the Islamic card in these and other ways was an effective tool of both Protestant and Catholic pamphleteers in the 16th and 17th centuries. But as time went on and the level of familiarity with the actual teaching and practice of Islam grew in the West, the inherited models became harder to sustain. Malcolm gives a fascinating account of how traditional polemic against Islam acquired a new and subversive dimension in the course of the 17th century. It had been conventional to describe Muhammad as an ambitious fraud – one of the legacies of the “heresy” model for Islam, as all major heresiarchs were routinely presented as deceiving their followers for personal gain or advantage. But as confidence in claims to supernatural revelation weakened in the West, there was a gradual recognition that any claim to an authority based on revelation could be represented by a hostile observer in much the same way. What was said about Muhammad could be said about Moses; and even if hardly anyone dared to suggest that the same might apply to Jesus, it could certainly be applied to Paul and other early Christian teachers. In other words, anti-Muslim polemic gradually turned in some quarters into a sort of universal acid to dissolve all traditional religious claims. Or, if it did not go quite that far, it could prompt some Christian or para-Christian radicals in the 17th century to suggest that Muhammad was in fact the ancestor of revisionist Christianity, opposed to the mystifications of Trinitarian theology, priestcraft and superstition. Here is one of the many ironies that this book highlights. If Islam was seen as the Other of an orthodox and traditional Christian West, this also meant that Western critics of that tradition could interpret it almost as a beacon for Western reform – for “modernity”. And Malcolm traces with great subtlety how something of this emerges also in the uses of Muslim-related tropes in political philosophy. In three admirably lucid chapters on “despotism”, he outlines a succession of characterisations by Western writers of Ottoman polity as “despotic” – that is, as a system of untrammelled and arbitrary government where all authority is concentrated in a single sovereign figure. In contrast to Western monarchies, the Ottoman sovereign was not embedded in a complex of subsidiary and interdependent jurisdictions or bound by feudal reciprocities. Just as the Muslim religious world presented an austere landscape purged of the clutter of saintly mediation, sacramental duties, priestly control of the laity and so on, so the Muslim political environment similarly offered a drastically simplified and centralised picture, with no connection between public status and traditional land ownership, no entrenched hereditary nobility, no dense fabric of “rights” and “estates” and mutual obligations such as characterised Western monarchies. A regular cliché was that the Sultan’s subjects were his “slaves”, deprived of the protections of common law and feudal solidarity. This could be set out as a condemnation of Ottoman polity – and so as an oblique warning to Western monarchies not to go down this alien route – or as a demonstration that the logic of all monarchical government inexorably led to slavery. It could also be seen as something rather enviable: the “modernising” trends in Western monarchies that sought greater central power for monarchs and a reduction in the untidy multiplicity of feudal networks and quasi-independent jurisdictions could find in Islamic polity (as understood by some observers) a pattern worth contemplating in a more positive way. Just as a 17th-century Unitarian rejecting the the Christian Trinity in the name of up-to-the-minute intellectual consistency might see Islam as an early template for doctrinal reform, a 17th-century political theorist might consider the Sultan’s position as the single, unequivocal source of legitimacy to be a quite appealing version of the direction in which the rational state ought to be going. The extensive reforming activities of Suleiman “the Magnificent”, for example, whose long reign spanned the central decades of the 16th century, left a lasting impression on Western minds of what could be achieved by coherent and forceful direction on the part of a strong monarch. Agricultural and military reorganisation, rational systems of taxation and the reinforced legal protection of religious minorities all offered diverse interest groups in western Europe an enviable model. Of course, much of this rested on significantly distorted understandings of Ottoman polity, let alone Islamic law. A good deal of what is written in this period about the “despotic” authority of the Sultan shows not the least grasp of Islamic jurisprudence – though there are some laudable attempts to correct this ignorance and to establish that, in terms of property law, for example, the Sultan had no authority to override existing rights. But it was a persistent myth well into the 18th century. Malcolm discusses at length the portrait of despotic government painted by Montesquieu in his classic treatise on The Spirit of Laws (1848), and notes its influence on other writers of the period such as Turgot. The latter describes despotic rule as involving the control of a population by targeted educational strategies, and also depicts the process of building up a despot’s image as both remote and at the same time capable of terrifyingly unpredictable incursions into all areas of civil life. It has little to do with 18th-century Turkey, but is an uncanny adumbration of more recent totalitarian methods of rule. Interestingly, Turgot sees Islam as intensifying the “Asian” tendency to despotic rule, as the Ottoman empire is, in his eyes, so much more arbitrarily governed than China or Japan. Like Montesquieu, he is innocent of any knowledge of Islamic law; his concern is to create an ideal type for the purposes of argument. And those who responded to Montesquieu, Turgot and others in defence of the Ottoman system did not fail to observe that centralised and “rationally” absolute government (ie government with a single clear sovereign power from which there was no appeal – not the same as despotism) offered better security for private property than the confused pluralism of older Western patterns. What Malcolm triumphantly establishes, with a wealth of scholarship drawing on primary sources in many languages, is that the Ottoman empire, and to some degree the wider Islamic world, provided for early modern Europe not just a diabolical opposite to be condemned and resisted at all costs, but a sounding board for some fundamental thinking on religion and politics: about the jurisdiction of the state in religious affairs; the nature of sovereignty; the limits of religious toleration; the importance of standing armies for a stable state; the relation between local ethnic identities and homogenised multinational administration; and a good deal more. The book’s importance is thus not only to do with its nuanced account of the varieties of western European responses to Islam – though this is valuable enough, if only to show how inadequate is the narrative of a static and “medieval” Islam confronting a dynamically changing western Europe. It is also about how Europe has thought through – and often failed to think through – its own political identities. The Ottoman Other prompted Western thinkers to a variety of what were in effect thought experiments about politics, couched as descriptive essays; political philosophy disguised as social anthropology, in a style that continued to characterise Western accounts of “alien” societies for quite a long time. Malcolm leaves us with an abundance of pertinent contemporary questions: how do we now use “enemies” to define ourselves? How do we now think about the balance between a sovereign power that guarantees universal legal equality and the need to recognise the reality of diverse affiliations and solidarities that are not dependent on the state? How do Muslim majority states in the modern world balance legal or civic equality with the priority of the needs or rights of the community of faith? But perhaps his most important contribution is to help us think again about the clichés we still recycle that presuppose a radical ideological incompatibility between an innately pre-modern Islam and a timelessly liberal or pluralist West. Western arguments about Islam and Christianity helped to shape the vocabulary of Western thinking around sovereignty and law, even if they rested on a woefully one-sided version of Ottoman polity. And in these arguments, Islam could be deployed in various ways, including being seen as a kind of first draft for religious and political futures in western Europe. As Malcolm insists, in a brief but pungent couple of pages in his conclusion, an analysis of early modern versions of the Levant in terms of “Orientalism”, the reductive exoticising of an alien society, is deeply misleading. Without blurring the basic points of real diversity, religious and social, between western Europe and its menacing, tantalising, enviable and bewildering neighbour, Malcolm prompts us to ask not only how the West got to be “modern”, but whether the categories of “modern” and “pre-modern” are as clear cut as we might have thought when we try to do justice to our global political environment. The West did not arrive at its current “rational” self-depiction by the exercise of abstract, enlightened reasoning but by negotiating complicated arguments about its convergences and differences with a formidable antagonist, thinking through its own internal tensions via the medium of speculation, observation, polemic and semi-fiction about that useful enemy. Rowan Williams is a theologian and poet. He writes on books for the New Statesman