In another possible sign of thaw after decades of chilly relations between the United States and Iran, the U.S. is set to return 1,500 fossil pieces to Iran that it has kept since the 1979 revolution, the reformist paper Shargh reported this week, citing comments by Iran's chief environmental official Masoumeh Ebtekar.
Ebtekar confirmed the report on her English-language Twitter account, stating the remains were "on their way back" after a 40-year dispute. Shargh reported that these were fossils from Maragheh, an area in northwestern Iran that is described as "one of the most unique fossil sites" in the world.
Ebtekar was separately cited as saying in a meeting this week that they had been sent for study to the U.S. before the revolution, and had since been kept at Harvard University.
Since the fall of Iran's pro-Western, secular monarchy in 1979, Iran has had several disputes with the U.S., including over the restitution of frozen assets whose amount is also subject to dispute. But as a reminder of the cordial ties that existed between Iran and the U.S. in the 1970s, the daily observed that Iranian academics had engaged in joint digs and investigations in Maragheh with colleagues from UCLA and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
Ebtekar said there would be a ceremony to receive the fossils when they arrive, to be attended by Iranian and Harvard academics. The remains are reportedly of mammals from between 7.5 and 12.5 million years ago, including species such as the saber-tooth tiger. Many were thought to have migrated to that part of the continent to escape freezing conditions further north.
Some academics speculate that the quantity of remains in Iran may be due to mass deaths that followed the eruption of the Sahand volcano nearby. But ash from the volcano has helped preserve the fossils.