Family and Fossils: Million-year-old gifts from my wife and sisters

Family and Fossils: Million-year-old gifts from my wife and sisters
A Diacalymene trilobite. You can probably relate to trilobites by looking at two common present-day arthropods (members of the Phylum Arthropoda to which trilobites belong)—pillbugs, those tiny crawlies under fallen leaves which curl up when disturbed, and the sea roaches on rocks at the Manila Bay breakwater. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

(Third of three parts) Family and fossils: My cousin Isko and my first precious find, Family and fossils: My grandchild Meg and a treasure trove

I have in my hand a fossil—the remains of an ancient creature called a trilobite. This animal-looking rock resulted when the trilobite was buried and minerals replaced its body parts. It looks very old and rusty, like a car part left in an open junkyard for years. Whenever I pick it up, I get a thrill/chill, knowing I’m holding an object of incredible age, about 500 million years old (myo)!

Even across the millennia, I feel a connection with the life form it represents. Is it our ancestor? At the same time I deem it so utterly primitive, so far removed from me in the tree of evolution. Yet I won’t dare think that this was an inferior being now fittingly extinct. My human forebears have been on this planet a mere 3 million years, and I and our race may be obliterated soon due to climate change or nuclear war. But the tribe of this “inferior” creature flourished on earth for 270 million years! 

This trilobite fossil comes from a distant place, the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, though when the trilobite was alive, those mountains were the floor of a sea. (The mountain range was struck by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake last Sept. 8. The death toll is reportedly nearing 3,000. —Ed.) 

Too young rocks

No matter where you search in the Philippines, you won’t find fossils of trilobites or creatures a bit younger and now extinct for the simple reason that this country is made up of too young rocks to contain such fossils. In 1961, two geologists wrote that the oldest rocks you can find in Northern Luzon are from the Miocene epoch, merely 23 to 5.3 million years ago (mya). That’s just an hour if you think of the trilobite’s age as a day. 

A textbook on the geology of the Philippines says the oldest rocks in the country are from the Jurassic Period, 201.4 to 145 mya. These are found in the highlands of Cebu, in the basement rock of northwestern Mindoro, and in the Malampaya Sound and El Nido areas of Palawan. There were dinosaurs during the Jurassic but the Philippines was still beneath the sea then, so don’t expect to trip on a dinosaur femur. So far the oldest fossils dug up here are ammonites about 125 to 100.5 myo from San Andres, Catanduanes. 

A Dactylliocarus ammonite (165 million years old) from England. Its original parts have been replaced by pyrite (“fool’s gold”), giving it a golden sheen.

Thus, any self-respecting fossil collector looking for specimens much, much older than the marine ones I found in Cebu (which are just a few thousand years old) must find a way to “import” fossils from countries with older rocks. Nowadays the collector may think of checking with Amazon to see what fossils are available online. (At Amazon, you can buy hundred-myo dinosaur sh*t for only $20!) The good news is that locals can order select fossils from Shopee, which advertises ammonites, belemnites (extinct pusit), snails and other shells, coral fragments and fossil tumbles (stones rounded by a tumbler). Be forewarned that the item you order may not look as nice as in the ad.

Family to the rescue 

I was on collection mode long before Amazon was available. Fortunately, I got access to foreign fossils with the help of family. 

If nobody else has noticed what your heart’s desires are, your wife has. Wifey was on a trip abroad when she saw the perfect pasalubong for me in a park’s shop. She brought home the fossil of a small fish from the Green River rock formation, famous for its Eocene (50 myo) relics. Along with the fish fossil came a chunk of rock labelled “Sauropod, 180 myo, Middle Jurassic, Utah, USA.” I trust that the shop in the United States that sold it was honest with its wares.

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Fossil imprint of a fish from the Green River Formation.

That chunk is hard rock of quartz (the white crystals you see in the sand used for cement mix) and looks “properly” ancient. Unlike trilobites or ammonites, of which there are cute sizes, a sauropod is a giant long-necked dinosaur. The Jurassic sauropod, Brontosaurus, beloved of kids everywhere, weighed as much as seven Toyota Innovas. Hence a piece of rock from a Brontosaurus fossil is all you can expect to take home.

Of course you can speculate if this is indeed a dinosaur fossil or a counterfeit one, just some random old rock. The fossil trade is sufficiently lucrative to support unscrupulous merchants, so fossil enthusiasts have to be wary. (I’m reminded of my brother-in-law’s tale about his experience as a tourist in Egypt. While his ship was in the Suez Canal, guys clambered all over the ship—like our pasalubong vendors swarming provincial buses—selling “parts of a pyramid.”) 

Stephen Jay Gould, my “idol” fossil scientist, wrote of a visit to Morocco in which he checked for sample work of the famed fossil fakers there.

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Leaf fossils of Glossopteris, a woody, seed-bearing tree of the Permian period (275 myo) from New South Wales, Australia.

So my wife got me my initial “imported” fossils. However, the person who really took to heart my quest for more ancient fossils was my sister Emilie, who lives in Perth, Australia. The trilobite fossil is Emilie’s gift. After she sent that, she sent me ammonites, echinoids (sea urchins) and a mosasaur tooth. Where was she getting these? I found out that whenever she was in the Perth Museum area, she dropped by its shop to check on new fossil souvenirs. These fossils were themselves imported, like the trilobite from Morocco. But her last gift were Australian fossils—fossilized leaves from New South Wales.

Another sister, Lillian, who was then visiting her son’s family in Ireland, remembered my fossil hobby and picked up some marine fossils from a private museum in Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way (coast). 

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Fossils of unidentified marine life from the Atlantic coast of Ireland, probably pre-Devonian (older than 410 myo).

Petrified wood

The Philippines’ fossil record seems quite sparse because the country was underwater, or its rocks just being constituted, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. But we have fossils that would delight, even excite, enthusiasts and others. 

At the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural Science is an exhibit of fossil wood worth visiting: “In 2018, Larry and Pat Gotuaco donated their petrified wood collections to the National Museum of the Philippines. The collections include 88 foreign woods from the USA, Indonesia, India, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Greece. Also part of the collections are eight large pieces of petrified wood from Cagayan, Iloilo, and Mindoro.” (…/richard-mcgroger…/)

Petrified wood is “wood turned into stone,” ancient wood that was fossilized when its organic matter was replaced by minerals, primarily silica. Most of the Gotuaco collection are slices of a fossilized trunk or branch. One marvels at how this is done as petrified wood is quartz (a crystalline form of silica), harder than glass or the granite used for kitchen countertops. The craftsman needs a heavy-duty grinder equipped with a diamond-encrusted blade to cut it. Apparently, the local specimens in the collection are unprocessed stone logs.

I have one such uncut specimen of petrified wood. Sometime in the 1990s I drove by a plant nursery on C.P. Garcia Street in Quezon City and was surprised to see a stack of petrified logs being sold for garden décor. I purchased one of the smaller ones, a 39-centimeter piece of wood-looking hard rock. 

I used to think that it would take millions of years to petrify wood. However, experiments show that petrification can take a relatively short time if conditions are right—that is, there is volcanic activity to bury the wood in ash, and water to seep through to the wood and mineralize it. 

Other remarkable fossils

The National Museum also has samples of locally collected teeth of the giant megalodon shark. 

Speaking of marine artifacts, let me recount my encounter some 15 years ago with an astonishing fossil. It was the Christmas break and my sister Susan’s family and mine were vacationing in Baguio. The day before we left for Manila, Susan took us to a furniture-cum-antique store she patronized. The shop was built on the side of a hill and it had a lower floor you accessed via wooden stairs.

While going down the stairs, I noticed an object lying on the joists of the lower floor ceiling. It appeared to be a huge clamshell over a meter in diameter, but it had a dull color and looked like stone. It WAS stone. I was looking at the fossil of a huge Tridacna clam. The shop owner said it was owned by an American lady who was arranging for its shipment to the United States. 

As the Baguio highlands were once beneath the sea, this giant clam was probably found in the area. This fossil should have been in our National Museum. 

But on to even more valuable fossils. I remember that when I was a kid, I read a Sunday Times supplement about Philippine pre-history. A section was devoted to the anthropologist Henry Otley Beyer (head of the University of the Philippines’ Department of Anthropology from1925 to1954).  I was fascinated to learn that his excavations in the Cagayan Valley yielded fossils like the molar of an elephant-like animal. 

Museum’s own finds

A 1980 paper by Nestor Bondoc of the National Museum tells us the significance of this discovery and the museum’s own finds: 

“Since 1971, the Philippine National Museum has been engaged in significant archaeological research in Cagayan Valley, Northern Luzon. The discoveries of extinct Pleistocene fossil remains of ancient mammals, e.g., elephant, stegodon, rhinoceros, etc., all confirm the geological theory that the Philippines was linked by land bridges to mainland Asia in prehistoric times.” 

Collectors must surely dream of owning evidentiary fossils like these which have value beyond their type or age. They’re proof that the Philippines was once joined to the Asian mainland. (Fortunately, thus far the Chinese have not used this fact to claim that the Philippines is part of China!)

A recent fossil discovery tops these earlier fossil finds in significance. Here is how a science newsletter (May 2, 2018) announced the publication of an article in the British scientific journal, Nature, about “an exciting new finding”:

“A dig in Luzon, an island in the northern Philippines, has uncovered fossils of an ‘Ice Age’ rhinoceros that was butchered around 700,000 years ago. It’s the first evidence demonstrating the presence of archaic humans in the Philippines.”

So fossil bones exhibiting cuts by stone tools prove that hominins (ancestral humans) were already living in the Philippines 700,000 years ago! To put things in perspective, refer to this quote from Wikipedia: “The Homo genus is evidenced by the appearance of H. Habilis over 2 mya, while anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa approximately 300,000 years ago.” 

Thus, the early presence of hominins in Cagayan puts the Philippines on the map in the ongoing study of human evolution. Our local fossils may not be millions of years old, but there are some whose discovery has made the world take notice!

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