WASHINGTON — US customs officials on Wednesday handed over a collection of 66 pieces of prehistoric fossils seized by US customs officials.
Experts at the Field Museum of Chicago determined that the fossils were approximately 525 million years old and had scientific value. The fossils are some of the oldest of soft animals tissue anywhere in the world.
Initial studies by the China National Museum of Geology also indicate that the fossils were from the Cambrian Period, a geologic age between 570 million years and 505 million years ago.
US Customs and Border Protections officers seized the fossils on March 14, 2007. They were in a parcel mailed from Hong Kong to Chicago and the senders had described the fossils as ‘stones’, according to the Chinese Embassy in the US.
In a similar case last September, the US returned to China fossils dating from about 100 million years ago, including bones of a saber-toothed cat, a partial dinosaur skull and eggs of several other dinosaurs.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a news release that US Customs and Border Protection officers identified the small stone slabs containing impressions of prehistoric paleovertebrates during routine inspections in Chicago. Immigration and Customs Enforcement then lead an investigation and seized the fossils, which require special documentation to enter the US.
Chinese authorities were notified and requested the fossils’ return.
China considers these fossils cultural relics, which can’t be exported without proper certification.
“They (the fossils) are of great significance to our scientific research of the prehistoric era,” said Xie Feng, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Chinese Embassy in the US at the hand-over ceremony at the embassy.
Xie expressed “sincere appreciation and gratitude” to the US government on behalf of the Chinese government.
“This collection of fossils, dating back 525 million years, represents centuries upon centuries of life in what is now China. Although relatively inexpensive in terms of fossil trade, they are priceless to the scientific community,” said John Morton, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Though our investigation is ongoing, these artifacts are headed home, where Chinese scientists will have the opportunity to study them,” said Morton.
Thomas Winkowski, Assistant Commissioner for US Customs and Border Protection’s office of field operations, said they are stepping up measures to crack down on fossil smuggling, including training border officers to detect artifacts.
“Dinosaur eggs are the major items (of smuggling), but there is a market out there for any of these types of prehistoric artifacts and people will move them from country to country and sell them to individual collectors,” said Winkowski.
The case is still under investigation and no criminal charge has been filed, he added.
In recent years several other countries have also returned precious historic artifacts to China.
In January 2008, the Australian government returned 750 kilograms of dinosaur eggs and other fossils, seized by Australian customs officers over three years, to China.