What Good is the Fossil Record? Perspectives of the Prehistoric Past
What Good is a Fossil Record?
That is to say, what benefit does society receive from the existence of fossils of the ancient world? There are many of them that are scientific:
But are there any pragmatic benefits? YES!
And some benefits are even aesthetic:
This final lecture we'll look at some of these big issues of the fossil record in society: who owns the fossil record? And where we should go to get information from the fossil record.
But what about the sort of fossils that this course focused on: the body and trace fossils of organisms as object?
In order to look into this, we need to consider the different types of people who search for fossils, and their motivations.
There are professional paleontologists: normally motivated by research, and normally employed by museums, universities, and other academic institutions. However, some might be employed by resource-management organizations (such as the US or state geological surveys; National Parks or Monuments; state parks; etc.): some of these may do research as well, but often they have the additional job of overseeing the protection of fossil sites and so forth. (And these jobs aren't mutually exclusive: the recently-retired State Paleontologist of Montana was also a Professor at Montana State University AND a curator of the Museum of the Rockies!) Professional paleontologists are the only group likely to develop major expeditions, and are the only group likely to prospect in formations that aren't yet known to produce lots of fossils: after all, discovery is our job! Given professionals tend to specialize on particular taxa (and thus might not be limited to working in just one region), but some work mostly on particular faunas or formations.
Another group is avocational collectors: hobbyists, enthusiasts, "amateurs" (in both the sense that the don't get paid to find fossils, and that they do it because they love it.) Avocational collectors are BY FAR the largest community. The tend to generate interest in fossils, and in Nature and Science, among the general public. Many important finds have been made by avocational collectors (which they often donate to museum collections). In general they tend mostly to prospect sites known to produce large quantities of common fossils (after all, they are more likely to do this for a day on the weekend, not a six-week expedition.)
The smallest group are commercial collectors. They tend to specialize in a particular geographic region and a particular set of formations known to produce good fossils: after all, they are doing this for a livelihood, so they need to have some likely return on their investment. In some cases, they are the best outfits able to field crews and run preparation labs in the regions they operate, although some teams might be ill-equipped or relatively unskilled (but the same can be said about some avocational and professionals...) In some cases, the commercial collectors cooperate with researchers to bring the fossils into the public trust; however, in some cases (as discussed below), there are conflicts between the goals of professionals and commercials.
Some historical commercial collectors were major contributors in the history of paleontology, such as Mary Anning (1799-1847) of England and the Sternberg Family of the western U.S. (The latter are an extension of the practice of hired crews used by the professional paleontologists: a very common practice in the 19th Century in the American West.
Proponents of commercial collecting and sales of fossils put forth some important arguments:
(Here is a commentary taking the pro-commercial collector position).
However, others point out that there are many problems with the commercial collection of fossils:
(Here is a commentary taking the anti-commercial collection position.)
The most famous story of a conflict between commercial collectors and professional paleontologists, as well as issues of land management, Native American rights, and much more, is the case of "Sue" the Tyrannosaurus rex. In 1990 the Black Hills Institute (BHI, a commercial collecting firm operating out of Hill City, South Dakota) was exploring for fossils in the Hell Creek Formation (the latest Cretaceous of western North America) on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Team member Sue Hendrickson went off on her own and discovered what turned out to be the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found. The BHI dug up the specimen and brought it back to Hill City. However, a dispute arose: the land owner (Maurice Williams) claimed that the $5000 they had paid him was NOT for the specimen, but simply the right to prospect his land; Williams argued that the specimen belonged to him, not BHI. Because Williams is a member of the Sioux nation, this dispute became an issue of federal law. In 1992 the FBI and National Guard came to BHI and took control of the fossil. A legal decision in 1995 determined that "Sue" was indeed Williams property. The specimen went to the auction block at Sotheby's, where for $8,362,500 the Field Museum in Chicago acquired the specimen (backed by Disney and McDonalds).
(The story of "Sue" has been the focus of two different documentary: a markedly pro-Larson one from 2014, and a more balanced one by the TV series NOVA from 1997.
The legacy of the "Sue" incident was to drive a rift between many commercial collectors and professional paleontologists; to increase the sales of dramatic fossil specimens in stores and at auction; an increase of the perception of privately-owned fossils as a prestige item of the rich to display; and to increase the market for faked fossils to fill the market place.
The most famous post-"Sue" hoaxed fossil is the "Archaeoraptor liaoningensis". A 1999 issue of National Geographic Magazine featuring the newly-discovered Yixian and Jiufotang feathered dinosaur fossils announced a fossil of an as-yet unnamed species. Its front end was very derived, but its hips and tail were fairly primitive. Paleontologists (including this one!) were very curious about this specimen, as it had not been described in the technical literature. And there was a good reason for that: it was a hoax, and every attempt to publish it in a scientific journal failed peer-review as the reviewers noted the falsehood of the specimen. In February 2000, National Geographic announced that it was indeed a fake, combining the front end of a bird (Yanornis) and the rear end of a dromeosaurid (Microraptor). A study in 2001 eventually showed the steps needed to construct the hoax. The hoax had been done in China, where a market had already been developed in the sale of fossils (despite the fact this is illegal in the People's Republic!): the more complete the fossil, the better! The concern wasn't the information from the fossil, but rather how much money they could make from it.
Beringer's Lügensteine (Lying Stones)
The first case dates back to the earliest days of paleontology. In the early 1700s natural historian Johann Bartolomeus Adam Beringer (of the University of Würzburg, Bavaria) often made collections of fossils from nearby Mount Eibelstadt. He was one of the thinkers who did not think that fossils were the remains of ancient life; rather, that they were the direct manifestation of the Mind of God trying to speak to us. Eventually he began to turn up truly remarkable fossils: not just the hard parts, but the shapes of entire animals and plants, and eventually text in Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and the like (including the name of God).
Convinced that this evidence had clinched his hypothesis, he published a book in 1726 describing these stones and his interpretation of them.
To our modern eye, even a non-paleontologist can clearly see these are fakes: carvings on the native stone. But these were still the early days of the field, so even an expert of the time was fooled (largely because it was all consistent with own favored hypothesis). However, he realized he had been tricked when some of the stones showed up with his own name written on them.
The hoaxers where his own colleagues: mathematician/geographer Jean Ignace Roderique and chief librarian Johan Georg von Eckhardt. They felt he was "so arrogant and despised us all", so they wanted to publicly shame him. The hired an artisan to help create the images, and a team to help plant the stones in areas they new Beringer liked to prospect.
Beringer tried to buy back all the copies of his book, and took the two to court. The hoaxers themselves wound up disgraced, while he kept his job. But afterwards he (and others) called these faux fossils "die Lügensteine: the "lying stones").
Koch's Creations: Missourium and Hydrarchos
The end of the 1700s and the early 1800s were a time of many discoveries in the young United States. Among the most famous natural history finds of the time was the discovery in 1799 of the first complete mastodon (Mammut americanum) near Newburgh, NY. It's excavation by artist/naturalist Charles Wilson Peale was a celebrated local sensation, as was his display of this complete skeleton at his Museum in Philadelpha in 1806.
The success of the mastodon bringing in paying visitors did not go unnoticed, so that a generation later someone figured that creating their own even more impressive skeletons would be yet more lucrative. That person was Albert Koch, an exhibitor of "curiosities". In 1835 he had set up an exhibit hall in St. Louis, and five years later received word of a complete mastodon found on a Missouri farm. He acquired this, as well as other partial mastodon skeletons. He combined the different specimens together (with wooden spacers between the vertebrae to enhance the length), resulting in a skeleton 32' long (twice that of a real mastodon), with the tusks mounted in an odd position. His signs declared this fossil the Missourium, largest of all terrestrial animals.
The "Missourium" was the hit of his exhibit hall. In fact, it was so popular that after just one year he sold the rest of his collect and the exhibit hall itself, and took Missourium on tour around the country. As natural historians would send in letters to the local newspapers warning the public that this was a fraudulent skeleton, he actually played on the public notoriety (asking for them to pay for the privilege of seeing it so "they can decide for themselves"). Eventually he sold Missourium to the British Museum, which took it apart and remounted the main individual skeleton properly.
In 1845 Koch became interested in acquiring a Basilosaurus skeleton for display, and managed to get a good partial skeleton and at least six other individuals. He strung these together (with some ammonoid shells added as extra bones!) to create a sea serpent skeleton, which he named Hydrarchos, ruler of the waters! The resultant fossil was 114' long, much longer than a real Basilosaurus.
As with Missourium, Hydrarchos went on tour in the US, and then Europe. The Prussian king (ignoring the words of the paleontologists) bought the specimen and demanded having it displayed at the natural history museum in Berlin. (It is still there, but long since dismantled into its various components). Koch actually got a new set of fossils, created a Hydrarchos version 2.0 (this one a mere 96' long), and took that on tour in 1848. That specimen was acquired by another curiosity exhibitor, who had it on display in Chicago (under the then-used name for Basilosaurus: Zeuglodon) until it was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
"Eoanthropus dawsoni": Piltdown man
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, early humans had been found in France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and other continental European countries, but not yet the United Kingdom. Furthermore, there was a particular theory of human origins developed at this time (this was before the fossils of earlier homininans from Africa had been discovered): it was thought that humans developed our characteristic powerful brain first, and only later developed a fully upright stance, grasping hands, reduced lower jaw, and so forth.
That changed at the 12 December 1912 meeting of the Geological Society of London. At that event, a paper was presented by paleoanthropoligst Arthur Woodward Smith, who told the following story: In the years 1908 to 1912, amateur archaeologist and antiquities collector Charles Dawson and his crew had found various remains from the Pleistocene deposits of human-like fossils and artifacts. (Dawson claimed that the workmen saw the top of the skull sticking out of the sediment, and thought it was a fossilized coconut). In the summer of 1912 Dawson approached Smith Woodward to help him collect, and the two worked together. However, Smith Woodward happened to be gone every time Dawson actually found remains of the proto-human.
The skull that Smith Woodward reconstructed from the remains had a human (or human-like) upper skull, as well as much more ape-like teeth and lower jaw; he named this a new species "Eoanthropus dawsoni" (Dawson's dawn man).This was Britain's major contribution to paleoanthropology, and it conformed to the "big brains first" model, since its braincase was practically modern but its jaw ape like.
Several other paleontologists and paleoanthropologists immediately challenged the idea that these bones and teeth were from the same species, or that they were in fact from the Ice Age. However, many accepted these specimens as genuine because they fit into their views. In 1915 Dawson brought some more specimens and artifacts to Smith Woodward from a new site about 2 miles from the originally locality; however, Dawson died in 1916 before revealing that location. After his death, not a single "Eoanthropus" fossil was ever found again.
However, in the following decades discoveries from Asia and (especially) Africa demonstrate that the "big brains first" model did not fit the vast majority of members of the human ancestral lineage: instead, they tended to be upright first, and only developed big brains later. Suspicion that "Piltdown Man" was a hoax grew; "Eoanthropus" was becoming less and less consilient with the growing body of evidence of other members of the human lineage whose authenticity was not in question.
It was confirmed in the 1950s as new chemical age-dating techniques became available, and showed that these were not a single ancient fossil, but instead a medieval human skull, a more recent orangutan jaw, and fossil chimpanzee teeth, all treated with chemicals to appear fossilized. To this day we do not know for certain who the hoaxer was, although Dawson is the primary suspect, nor the actual motive. But it is clear that many people fell for this forgery because it fit comfortably with their preconceived notions and their national prejudices.(It should be noted that Dawson was linked to over 38 other hoaxes concerning antiquities.) It is uncertain if Smith Woodward was in on the hoax, or simply the "patsy" of the con-game. It appears that at least some of their contemporaries were aware that it was a hoax, as Dawson & Smith Woodward did uncover the rib of a wooly mammoth carved to resemble that most British of tools, a cricket bat!. (Smith Woodward considered it an authentic club of the Piltdown Man.)
These protections don't always work, though: they have to actually be enforced. Mismanagement of Fossil Cycad National Monument in the 1920-1950s: people would just take away fossils from the Monument! With no more fossils to display or protect, the National Monument was decommissioned in 1957.
Other nations have different laws. In some fossils are regarded as protected antiquities or as part of the natural heritage, and are the property of the State (or the Crown), regardless of the private vs. public nature of the land they are found on. In others there are no protections anywhere except their national parks. And many nations have protections that effectively exist only on paper: big "grey" markets (really black markets, but with protection of government officials having been paid off.)
Recent years have seen the repatriation of illegally acquired fossils to the country of their origin: in particular Mongolia and China.
A particularly famous case of repatriation, however, actually removed fossils from the public trust. This is the case of Kennewick Man, an 8.9-9 ka skull discovered in 1996 from the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State. The morphology of the skull is more like a Polynesian or European than a Native American, so some paleoanthropologists suggested this was NOT from a population that arrived over Bering, but instead from some other part of the world. Local Native American tribes, however, argued that this specimen was one of their owned, and following the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) should be returned to them for burial. In 2004 the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit argued that the specimen was too far removed from present day to be securely related ethnically to any extant group. New DNA analysis published in 2015 did actually demonstrate the close genetic affinity of Kennewick Man to native populations of the American Northwest, so it was announced in Spring 2016 that the specimen will be repatriated.
The technical literature is a traditional method, but that is really for communication of scientist-to-scientist. Public talks are equally old, and still pretty common, but are now enhanced by such things as outreach websites (like the Witmer Lab site at Ohio University.) Or there are site-based outreach, of which museums are the main method.
Of course, science news is one way, but the news media have their own agenda. Most importantly, of course, news reports are brief, but science is in the details.
The blogosphere allows for more detailed scientific information, but not sites are equally reliable or useful. Some are by professional scientists; others by highly knowledgeable science writers; but some are just by fans who might not know the professional information as well. More problematic, though, are websites by anti-scientific organizations or by people promoting fringe ideas.
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