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

By Marco Evers

Part 2: 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.

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

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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