Family and fossils: My cousin Isko and my first precious find

The stone my cousin picked up on the beach was a smooth pebble with a single corallite on it, like a flower imprinted on stone. Beautiful. The corallite-covered stone in this photo has an interesting story to it. While walking along R. Evangelista in Quiapo, I saw a small crowd gathered around a stand in mid-street. A tout was displaying pretty and strange-looking stones which, he claimed, were “buhay na bato” (live stones) that had various powers—this one, he said, would ensure one’s success as a gambler; that one would make one lucky in love. The stones were expensive. An almost round bit of fossil coral was P500! I settled for the stone in the photo which, though not as pretty, cost only P100.

(First of two parts)

I found my first fossil on a rocky shore in Catmon, a town an hour’s drive from Cebu City. 

My family and I were on a drive through the countryside north of the city: Liloan, Danao, Carmen, Catmon, Sogod … On the way back we stopped at the only decent public swimming place within a hundred kilometers of the city. 

This section of the eastern coast has low seaside cliffs, rocky shores and, closer to the city, beaches with resorts that cater to the not-so-well-to-do, with nipa sheds all crowded together. But who cares if the beaches are of nondescript sand and the water is cloudy? The places are filled to overflowing on weekends: the adults happy with grilled chicken and liempo, gin and beer, and the youngsters happy to be frolicking in sea water instead of dusty streets.

We chose a less popular seaside spot in Catmon which offers no huts and beer but has sparkling clear waters. There is a bikini-sized beach. The rest of the shore is just hard rock with a scalloped surface gouged out by the sea, pimply with barnacles and oysters. The road leading to this foreshore is a sloping path leveled with landfill. To get to water deep enough to swim, you gingerly pick your way across this no man’s land. 

Before committing myself to crossing this no man’s land of rock and oyster shell, I looked around and my eyes were drawn to the landfill.

Any place I find rocks, pebbles and shells—beach, riverbed or hillside excavation—I automatically switch to collecting mode. What am I looking for? Interesting stones, curiously shaped driftwood, or coral and shells. Most of all I hope to find fossils.

You can say that every boy who has read about dinosaurs harbors a keen interest in fossils, but I consider my interest a notch above the average boy’s. Did your average boy read in a supplement of the old Manila Times that elephant molars had been excavated in Cagayan Valley? That vacationists climbing Dominican Hill in Baguio had come upon shells? Has your average boy expressed an interest in examining the fossils on the walls of Dalton Pass? 

But what really fixated me on finding fossils was something that happened in a southern town when I was a boy of 12. On that occasion, my cousin Isko (Inisko!)—who had fewer credentials than your average boy—beat me to the only fossil I ever expected to find in the Philippines.

Flower imprinted on it

There we were on White Sands—a stretch of shore just outside the city which had a decent beach in those days and wasn’t the overpopulated strip and seaside garbage dump I’d seen in more recent years—side by side scanning the flotsam and jetsam for shells or oddly shaped pebbles, when he suddenly stooped to pick up an object and whooped. 

Quickly he showed me his find, eager to get me all worked up with envy. It was a round pebble with a flower imprinted on it. Inwardly I cursed myself: I had just missed being the proud owner of a fossilized corallite, the skeleton of a coral polyp.

I never liked my cousin Isko. He was sniffy, maybe because he was always a tad luckier than me every time we were together. If there was a 10-centavo coin on the path ahead he’d already be reaching for it while I tried to figure out what it was. He came to represent all those fellows who, in the 12 years of my life on earth so far, had shown themselves to be my superiors—my neighbor Randy whose fists were faster than mine, my classmate Ignacio whose IQ was double mine, my cousin Ping who was immediately recognized as the alpha male in any gathering where we both were present.

Now, this impudent, ignorant cousin who had never even heard about fossils was going to own an honest-to-goodness fossil corallite that was zillions of years old! Life can be so unfair! And even if I had a peso or two (a fabulous sum for a kid in the 1950s, when the exchange rate was $1 to P2) to bribe him with, he would probably have just curled his lips in disdain. He would surely have used my failure in what would have been an honest business transaction to taunt me with in the future.

You might well ask: Did the thought not cross my mind that, as a 12-year-old motivated by the moral principles of self-interest, I could have acted like one, snatched his find, and just ran away with it? Well, no. Not only was I properly schooled in good behavior (thanks to my dad’s spare-the-slipper-and-spoil-the-child philosophy), but I also knew that such an act had no chance of success. There were too many witnesses around; my cousin could outrun and trip me; and our aunt Domina, who had the build of an amazon, was just an arm’s length away. I always suspected that Domina, who didn’t behave at all like a loving aunt, was always on the lookout for an excuse to stomp me.

Thank the stars I only rarely run into that cousin of mine nowadays. I’m very civil to him, but I have to take great pains to suppress the urge to denounce him for all the wrong turns my life’s path has taken since that incident on White Sands 60 years ago.

Seabed thrust upward

But back to the first fossil of which I could truly claim ownership. The Catmon landfill was surely gravel scratched out of a nearby hill. No one would waste money to transport filling so far away when there was material for the taking in the hill just around the bend. I was not at all obsessed to look for marine fossil in the area. I knew something that 99.9% of Cebuanos did not know, or were not interested to know. 

I had scanned a chapter in a treatise by German geologists on the rocks of Cebu. (Okay, okay, I don’t know any German except for what I’ve picked up from war movies: Achtung! Minen! Etc. But the book had pictures with words like “Jurazeit” that I could figure out. Of course, I had to look up “Erdneuzeit.” Thank heavens it just meant the “Cenozoic Era.”) I learned that all the land bordering the shore was Quaternary (the most recent part of the Cenozoic Era, 2.6 million years ago) seabed thrust upward by geologic forces and left high and dry. 

Fossil hunters interested in more ancient rock—from dinosaur time, that is, the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods—will have to scale the central highlands. I’d like to get my hands on older sea detritus, but I have no inclination to hack through brush, chop down trees that are rare enough in Cebu, and explode a stick of dynamite in the cleared area on the chance of unearthing a Jurassic snail.

On that fateful summer day, I saw this bit of gravel that had too much shape to it. I recognized at once the bare outlines of a sigay, one of those small cowry shells used in the native game of sungka. It was of a washed-out color and had a dent in it—impossible, I thought, my additional clue to this object not being a present-day one. A new sigay would have been shattered before it could exhibit such a dent, but a shell squeezed by tons of rock would deform like plastic. 

My first fossil find is a “sigay” (a cowry, a sea snail of the genus Cypraeidae). With the shell shown on its back, the slit is visible though the “teeth” are covered up or degraded.

When I turned it over and saw a cowry’s slit, my heart skipped a beat: I knew I had a pretty old bit of shell. 

I was ecstatic, beside myself with joy. “I found a fossil!” I screamed to my family. “Let me see, let me see,” they said. I showed them the dirty sigay, and their enthusiasm quickly faded. “Interesting,” they said, and resumed picking their way through the sharp rocks back to the water. I could see they did not grasp the profound meaning of the occasion.

On some nights before I nod off to sleep, the thrill of that coup comes back, but is colored by a bit of regret. My cousin Isko lives on another island and I haven’t had the chance to show off my find. But then I think he would just wave away my momentous discovery. Now 70ish and swarmed by a dozen grandchildren, he can’t bother with an odd-shaped stone.

Second of two parts : Family and fossils: My grandchild Meg and a treasure trove

The author wants it known that he made appropriate changes so certain characters mentioned in his tale are not identifiable. —Ed.

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