Apr 022013

3158754-close-up-of-sea-urchin-shells-on-the-beachWhen I was writing my last blog about eggs, I had a few outtakes that didn’t quite fit. One of these was the druidical egg described by Pliny the Elder, which was probably a sea urchin skeleton. This got me wondering about how people thought about fossils before palaeontology was invented.
One common view was that fossils had magical or medicinal properties, often being associated with the bones of saints or ancestors. An interesting example comes from Cyprus. Saint Phanourios, about whom we apparently know almost nothing except his recipe for bread, seemed to have been a youth who sailed to Cyprus from Syria to bring the message of Christ, but who died while ascending the cliffs. Until at least the 1970s, and in the belief that they were the bones of the saint, the locals collected the plentiful fossil bones of pygmy hippopotami (Phanourios minor) and ground them up for medicinal purposes.
According to Wikipedia, Leonardo da Vinci visited the Cypriot village of Lefkara in 1481 and purchased a lace altar cloth for the Duomo di Milano.  It was while living in Milan that he developed his ground-breaking theories about geology and the deposition of fossils. Here are his own words from the Notebooks:

The shells, oysters, and other similar animals, which originate in sea-mud, bear witness to the changes of the earth round the centre of our elements. This is proved thus: Great rivers always run turbid, being coloured by the earth, which is stirred by the friction of their waters at the bottom and on their shores; and this wearing disturbs the face of the strata made by the layers of shells, which lie on the surface of the marine mud, and which were produced there when the salt waters covered them; and these strata were covered over again from time to time, with mud of various thickness, or carried down to the sea by the rivers and floods of more or less extent; and thus these layers of mud became raised to such a height, that they came up from the bottom to the air. At the present time these bottoms are so high that they form hills or high mountains, and the rivers, which wear away the sides of these mountains, uncover the strata of these shells, and thus the softened side of the earth continually rises and the antipodes sink closer to the centre of the earth, and the ancient bottoms of the seas have become mountain ridges.

Nobody really topped this until Louis Agassiz nailed the Flood theory with the concept of glaciation in 1840. As the Edinburgh Geological Society noted in 2002 – “If Agassiz was right then centuries of belief in diluvial theories based on Noah’s Flood had to be abandoned: one of the most telling blows against science’s reliance on scriptural evidence.”
Which just makes the creationists all the more irritating when they disingenuously misquote da Vinci as evidence for the Flood. But just to put the boot in (so to speak), here is part of the case for fossil denial. Have you ever heard of limestone-cowboy-boot-insidethe Limestone Cowboy? This “fossilised” leg in a boot was gleefully seized upon by creation scientists as evidence that fossils didn’t take millions of years to form, but only a few years. As bible.ca says:

“The fact that some materials can fossilize rapidly under certain circumstances is well known by experts in the field and is not really a scientific issue. However, the general public has been misled in order to facilitate the impression of great ages. The dramatic example of the “Limestone Cowboy” immediately communicates the truth of the matter. Fossilization proves nothing about long periods of time.”

Trouble is, the cowboy ain’t no fossil, no sirree. The remains appear to be modern bone in a matrix of sediment. Indeed, unfossilised bones, bodies and natural mummies are not exactly rare in the American West. No fossilisation required. Oh well.
It seems our creationist friends don’t know the difference between rapid burial and rapid fossilisation. Rapid burial is often a pre-condition for fossilisation. The sooner an organism is insulated from normal decay processes, e.g. through burial beneath a layer of silt, the better the preservation will be. As Stephen Jay Gould said in his book on the Burgess Shale – Wonderful Life:

“… preconditions for the preservation of soft-bodied faunas: rapid burial of fossils in undisturbed sediment; deposition in an environment free from the usual agents of immediate destruction—primarily oxygen and other promoters of decay, and the full range of organisms, from bacteria to large scavengers, that quickly reduce most carcasses to oblivion in nearly all earthly environments; and minimal disruption by the later ravages of heat, pressure, fracturing, and erosion.”

However fossilisation is not a rapid process. It’s slow, complex, and apparently a lot harder to grasp than intelligent design.
And while we’re on the subject of the Cambrian Explosion? Apparently “Pre-Cambrian rock, before life, is Empty of fossils“. I’ve got just one word to say to you – Stromatolite.
But let’s not give up just yet. The Creation Evidence Museum of Texas also has a fossilised human finger (see picture). Wow. I think the website says it all:

The photograph above is a startling picture that instantly starts a struggle in the mind: One part says “that’s a finger!”, and another part says “that’s fake!”.

Why not try this useful guide from the Smithsonian – Bone vs. Stone: How to tell the difference. No struggle in my mind – it’s a rock, Joyce…

Further reading

  • Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.
  • Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, W W Norton & Company Incorporated, 1990 – Science – 347 pages
  • Sculpting of Rocks by Reactive Fluids – Section 5. Replacement Processes, Bjørn Jamtveit and Øyvind Hammer, Geochemical Perspectives, July 2012, v. 1:388-402. See especially section 5.2 Biological tissue replacement.

  2 Responses to “Just a Limestone Cowboy”

  1. Have your tried Saint Phanourios’ recipe for bread? It looks somewhat rich. It is hard to imagine Nigella Lawson perishing during a futile attempt at cliff ascension.

  2. I would always be a bit worried that the spicy flavour was coming from ground up pygmy hippopotamus bones, and not cinnamon…

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