The Death of God? England's 'Jurassic Coast' Yields Subversive Dinosaur Fossils

Reminders of the prehistoric past keep surfacing in a rich dinosaur graveyard in southern England. What a girl named Mary Anning found there in the 1800s began to dismantle the Bible's account of creation -- and anticipated the theory of evolution.

By Marco Evers


During the stormiest weather, when the sea thrashes the steep coastline of southern England, demolishing entire limestone cliffs, Chris Moore likes to go hunting for big game -- big, long-dead game.

Moore waits for low tide, then sets out along the beach off Charmouth on England's Channel coast. It's a unique place. In precisely the same spot where tourists like to bake in the summer sun, winter storms expose the sometimes meter-long pieces of fossilized carcasses of prehistoric creatures. Rarely, though, are the remains in one piece.

These apparitions are time travelers from a lost world. They're the fossilized remains of prehistoric lizards, giant fish and dinosaurs. The sea has flushed them out of their graves in England's cliffs. Many of them have not been exposed to light for 200 million years, and the moment Moore finds them is either their moment of loss or resurrection.

He has a trained eye, and he knows time is of the essence whenever he finds anything -- because whatever he can't retrieve before the tide rises will likely disappear into the ocean forever. His finds range from petrified skulls to entire ribcages. Sometimes getting to his treasure involves a lot of digging and chiseling. Sometimes he's lucky enough to find individual bones protruding from a cliff wall. And sometimes, of course, he finds nothing.

His work is difficult and dangerous. Standing beneath the weakened cliffs means standing in the path of possible landslides and mudslides, and the mud at the base of the cliffs can be as treacherous as quicksand. But Moore -- at 49 an old hand at his job -- still hasn't had enough. "You can always find something new here," he says.

When he isn't out searching for bones, Moore spends his days in his workshop, a sort of ICU for dinosaurs. It's filled with rocks and bones, bits of vertebrae and fins, dust and noise. Moore uses drills and sandblasting equipment to remove the rock encasing the bones -- with the help of Alex, his 23-year-old son and assistant.

Preparing each of the prehistoric carcasses, says Moore, requires "hundreds of hours of work." He sells the finished product to researchers, collectors and even decorators, sometimes for tens of thousands of pounds. Moore's works are on display at the Natural History Museum in London, as well as in museums in Tokyo and Toronto. He was the first to discover three types of fish dinosaurs, and one of them, Leptonectes moorei, is even named after him.

Charmouth, the village where Moore lives, is home to one of the world's richest deposits of fossils. It is also one of the cradles of geology and paleontology. It was here that Moore's predecessors, especially a poverty-stricken woman named Mary Anning, hit upon finds close to 200 years ago that revolutionized man's knowledge of the history of life -- and began to unravel the Old Testament's account of creation, years before naturalist Charles Darwin established the foundation for what some call a "godless world" with his theory of evolution.

If God is indeed dead, the beasts embedded in the rock at Charmouth are at least partly to blame.

'Jurassic Coast'

Nowadays the remains of these creatures are responsible for the livelihood of a number of people. In addition to Moore, seven other so-called "fossil hunters" make a living uncovering the bones of these prehistoric animals, though not all of them are as lucky as Tony Gill. He became a local celebrity when he found a giant fish lizard fossil near the parking lot in front of his shop. The snout of this 12-meter (39-foot) creature, lined with razor-sharp teeth, is as long as a human leg and has eye sockets larger than large hands.

Map of the coast: Click to enlarge.
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Map of the coast: Click to enlarge.

Tens of thousands of tourists come to Charmouth each year to hunt for the remains of prehistoric fauna. Freelance biologist Colin Dawes guides hundreds of amateur paleontologists through the bizarre fossil graveyard every week. Under his guidance, even children are able to find fossils as easily as they might find shells. A cantankerous man dressed in an Indiana Jones-like outfit, Dawes regales the children with stories about the great Darwin, all the while giving them a lesson in natural selection and how it has been responsible for the constant emergence of new species. Sometimes Dawes encounters outraged parents, who prefer to have their children hear the Biblical story of creation, not the scientific version.

Tourism officials have come up with their own name for this segment of the English coast in East Devon and County Dorset: "Jurassic Coast." The region has even been named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, along with places like the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon. The Jurassic Coast is a history book of the earth and of life itself. More than any other place on earth, this 150-kilometer (94-mile) coastal strip discloses the Mesozoic Era, which encompasses the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, in all of its splendor and horror.

The first sediments date from a period more than 250 million years ago. A massive planetary extinction had just occurred, leading to conditions that allowed the dinosaurs to develop and thrive. The most recent sediments date from about 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs became extinct, paving the way for mammals to take their place as the planet's dominant species. Early dramas of evolution unfolded in this 185-million-year period between the two mass extinctions. Like tree rings, the sediments along the Jurassic Coast enable scientists to piece together a detailed account of this era, including the rise and fall of powerful species, the refinement of life into niches, adaptation to climate change, mass extinction and the demise of some species and birth of others.

Mary Anning, the Young Pioneer

Today the Jurassic Coast is a place of beaches, soft green hills and picturesque little villages. But over millions of years the face of the region changed from desert to tropical to a landscape not unlike the latter-day Caribbean's. Many of the dinosaurs that once thrived on what became the British Isles left visible tracks in its rock. The region was once especially hospitable to water-dwelling creatures, including prehistoric crocodiles, long-necked and fish-like dinosaurs.

People have always discovered prehistoric fossils, but the significance of their finds was often lost on them. For them it was inconceivable that completely different worlds existed on earth before humans arrived.

In some places the snail-shaped fossils known as ammonites were called snake stones, because people were convinced that the fossilization represented rolled-up snakes. They were believed to have curative properties against such maladies as snakebites and impotence. And while some saw fossils as the work of Satan, for most people they were the work of God, remains of the victims of the Deluge. Christians believed that those who had not found their way to Noah's Ark were petrified in the soil.

For centuries Christians were convinced that the Book of Genesis was a true account of historical events. The existence of fossils only reinforced this belief. The fact that fossilized shells were found at high altitudes seemed to fit the picture, and it was taken as proof positive that the deluge must have been so overwhelming that it reached to the tops of the highest mountains.

In 1650, the Irish Archbishop James Ussher used his calculations of the life spans of Old Testament patriarchs to determine what he believed to be the exact date of the deluge and even creation. According to Ussher's figures, God sent the Great Flood in 2,501 B.C., and the creation of heaven, earth and all life on it, every animal and every plant, happened exactly 1,503 years earlier. God's first working day was Sunday, Oct. 23 -- in 4,004 B.C. Before then, according to Ussher, there was nothing.

'The Princess of Paleontology'

Theories like Ussher's were taken at face value for centuries. Ussher himself was seen as a luminary, and his analyses were appended to the Bible. The creation account itself was already unassailable, although it became increasingly difficult for thinking individuals to reconcile it with nature.

But what happened to the fossilized remains of human victims of the deluge? Why were the fossils of mammals always found far below those of reptiles? Wasn't it possible that some animal species became extinct after all, while other species developed in their place? Was there more than one creation?

During the first half of the 19th century, geology was referred to as "underground science" -- a subversive activity. The keepers of the faith hoped that the subject would eventually shed light on literal creation. But others insisted the opposite was true, and their goal was to liberate science from Moses. Both sides had champions who became embroiled in intellectual and sometimes physical feuds. The public looked on with growing fascination as the biblical view of the world began to falter. Some were more than onlookers, as it became fashionable among the educated classes to secretly collect the mysterious fossils in their bookcases at home.

In 1812, a girl went hunting for fossils, much as Chris Moore does today, in the village of Lyme Regis near Charmouth. Mary Anning was 12 years old. Her father had died recently and she and her brother and mother lived on charity. What Anning found that day in the limestone was highly unusual: a skeleton, five meters (16 feet) long, of a creature that seemed as if it had come from another world.

A year earlier, Mary's brother had found a grisly skull in the same spot. It fit precisely on the carcass of the beast Mary found. The two half-orphans managed to sell their find for 23 pounds, enough to feed the family for half a year. It was the beginning of a career that earned Mary Anning recognition as the "princess of paleontology" and the "greatest fossil collector of all time."

Anning's first find wound up in the British Museum years later. The scholars of the day named the animal "ichthyosaurus" or "fish lizard." But that was the extent of their understanding of the fossil. The snout was pointed like that of a dolphin, and the teeth resembled those of a crocodile. The eye sockets were birdlike while the vertebrae suggested a fish. What was it? More importantly, what role did this creature play in God's plan?

Mary Anning was neither educated nor a member of the upper class, but she was intelligent and more capable as a fossil hunter than any living man. It was said that she could pick out a rock that contained a fossil from among 50 boulders. She found vast numbers of coproliths, or lumps of fossilized dinosaur dung. A collector described her as someone who would comb over "the foreboding, steep cliffs, even when the raging spring tide conspired with the howling storm winds." Her ventures proved to be the undoing of her dog Tray, who was killed by a falling rock.

Underground scientists from Oxford and London paid frequent visits to the fossil hunter. In her small shop, she sold fossilized arguments to both sides, to creationists and early evolutionists alike, and she eventually played a decisive role in one of the early scientific wars over God and the world.

A Neglected Pioneer

On Dec. 10, 1823, Anning found another fossil that no human being had ever seen before. It was a startling creature, 2.7 meters (9 feet) long, with a tiny brain and a neck longer than its torso and tail combined. Instead of legs or fins, it had paddles. The neck consisted of 35 vertebrae, something that was unprecedented in mammals, birds or reptiles. It resembled Nessie, the legendary Loch Ness monster, but Nessie was still unknown at the time.

Anning sent drawings of the fossil to experts, but they accused her of fabricating the drawings. They claimed that she must have mounted the carcass of a sea snake onto that of an ichthyosaurus, hoping to derive financial benefit from her supposed find. Her reputation was all but destroyed. But a few scholars believed her story of this apparent cross between creatures, and it entered the annals of paleontology as a "plesiosaurus," a creature that was apparently extinct.

The overwhelming evidence presented by these finds eventually forced the enemies of the evolutionists to concede that some species had in fact disappeared from the earth -- even though this sharply contradicted the Book of Genesis. Leading creationists had to admit that it was impossible for God to have created heaven and earth in six days. But they sought to downplay the science by asserting that the six days were to be interpreted as units of time, each of which could last for millions of years. These concessions inflicted great damage on the faith, however, and prompted people to leave the church in droves.

In 1847 Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 48. The Geological Society dedicated an obituary to her, despite the fact that it had consistently denied her its membership because she was a woman. Nevertheless, the scholars were aware of the debt they owed her. She knew it, too: Anning was consistently annoyed, during her life, that she was never quoted in their professional journals.

Today, a few rooms in the village museum on the beach of Lyme Regis where Anning once sold what were then called "crocodile's heads" are dedicated to the famous collector. Nevertheless, along the entire Jurassic Coast, there is not a single major museum devoted to her groundbreaking collection of fossils.

Dinosaur hunter Chris Moore is outraged. He calls it "a disgrace." But this too will change, he believes -- especially when the number of finds on this coast becomes too overwhelming to ignore. He may be right. As long as erosion eats away at England's steep coastline, it will continue to give birth to fossils.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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