“What do paleontologists do with all the things they find that they weren’t actually looking for?”

The wall of skulls in the upstairs portion of the Fossil Lab (Photo: Shala Howell)

The wall of skulls in the upstairs portion of the Fossil Lab (Photo: Shala Howell)

I knew walking in to Dr. Paul Sereno’s Fossil Lab at the University of Chicago last Tuesday that I’d see a ton of dinosaur bones (perhaps even literally). But what I didn’t expect to see were the human remains and bits of pottery that were scattered about as well.

While hunting dinosaurs in the Niger region of the Sahara in 2000, Dr. Sereno and his team stumbled across a Stone Age cemetery packed with hundreds of human burials and thousands of artifacts.

Dr. Sereno had some of his finds from the 5,000 – 10,000 year old graveyard out in his lab for analysis, including the skeleton of a young girl wearing a bracelet made out of human bone and a stunning slab containing the intertwined skeletons of a Stone Age mother and her two children.

They were breathtaking. And utterly surprising.

I was so surprised to see them that I forgot to take any pictures of them. Fortunately there are a bunch of pictures posted on the Fossil Lab’s website here.

The presence of those human artifacts inadvertently answered my second biggest question walking in the door:

“What do paleontologists do with all the stuff they find that they weren’t looking for?”

I mean, imagine you’re a paleontologist. You’ve prepped 18 months for an expedition — choosing the site, lining up grant money, arranging a team, purchasing supplies, and obtaining permits. After at least one nauseatingly long trip by plane, one or two disconcerting short ones, and a rather jolty ride by Land Rover for you, your team, and your two tons of carefully selected supplies across the desert, you finally arrive at your chosen dig site. Time to start hunting for dinosaur bones, preferably very large ones. Say of the Nigersaurus variety.

Nigersaurus taqueti, a sauropod from the Middle Cretaceous period. Art by Nobu Tamura, based on a description by Sereno et al., 2007.

Nigersaurus taqueti, a sauropod from the Middle Cretaceous period. Art by Nobu Tamura, based on a description by Sereno et al., 2007.

 

 

Six weeks into a three-month expedition, you stumble on a massive gravesite, filled with the remains of humans buried some 5,000 – 10,000 years ago. The fossilized remains of crocodiles, hippos, and fish found near the human bones point to a much earlier wetter period in the Sahara’s life. Unfortunately, they don’t point to the Middle Cretaceous, which is the period you’re actually interested in.

What’s a paleontologist to do? Do you leave it for someone else to explore and go back to hunting for the stuff you actually wanted to find?

In Dr. Sereno’s case, the answer clearly was no. You collect everything you can and bring it all back to the lab. And then you go back five more times with an international team of paleontologists, archaeologists, geologists, cartographers, technicians and photographers to collect even more.

When you get home, you do whatever it takes to make room for it all.

“I can’t bear to throw anything out,” Dr. Sereno said.

On reflection, he recalled one time when he threw out some bits of debris after analysis showed they didn’t contain anything of interest. But otherwise, he’s kept everything he and his team have found.

It makes for a massive storage problem.

You know you *might* have a storage problem when you have to toss this guy up onto the highest shelf. (Photo: Shala Howell)

You know you *might* have a storage problem when you have to toss this guy way up out of reach on the highest shelf. (Photo: Shala Howell)

 

 

 

His current lab can’t contain it all, so Dr. Sereno keeps a warehouse off site for the items not actively being analyzed.

Perhaps his new building, which I hear will be starting construction in a few years, will be big enough to house it all. Somehow, though, I suspect not. I mean, it’s not like Dr. Sereno’s going to stop collecting any time soon.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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