#5. Ancient Mammal Fossils
At a stonecutting yard in Italy, masons were cutting slices from a large chunk of Egyptian limestone (likely with a giant deli meat slicer) when they happened to notice they were apparently taking cross sections of a massive skeleton.
Recognized by a local expert as a whale that lived in Egypt 40 million years ago, word of the discovery eventually reached the desk of University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich, an authority on ancient whales. This was a major find, but where he needed to be was the spot where the fossil actually originated, in Egypt. The problem was no one at the Italian stonecutting shop had any idea where the slab of rock had come from, and tracing its origins was pretty much impossible. Gingerich’s only clues were that it had passed through the Egyptian city of Sheikh Fadl and the vague assertion of a colleague in Egypt that the quarry was, we paraphrase, “Probably somewhere clear the hell farther East than that …”.
To Google Earth! Yes, with next to nothing to go on, Gingerich made like a modern day Indiana Jones and … well, sat his ass down.
Using Google Earth, he scanned eastward of Sheikh Fadl until he found a range of limestone bluffs just begging to be turned into countertops. From the comfort of his office chair, he followed them east, looking for the sorts of roads that would be required to transport giant chunks of rock via truck. About 75 miles east of the city, he followed one such road to what looked like it might be a quarry. After hitting zoom and squinting at the screen for a few hours, he had friends in Egypt confirm that the road did in fact end at a limestone quarry. At this point, he finally hopped a plane, which we’re sure involved a map and a line being drawn from Michigan to Egypt to a score by John Williams.
Upon arriving, Gingerich realized that ancient-whale watching probably wasn’t going to happen. However, he did notice bands of red in the white limestone walls of the quarry, which he could tell were signs of loose soil blown into ancient caves. And he knew that ancient caves were ancient animals’ favorite places to get trapped and preserved forever as the freeloading real estate squatters they were. After a quick look around, he realized this quarry was full of more tiny bones than a garbage bin outside Hooters.
The bones were the remains of small mammals that lived in the early Miocene Epoch, some 18 to 20 million years ago — the first small mammal fossils that ancient to be found in Egypt. Even better, not only may they represent some of the first mammals to migrate from Asia to Africa when the land bridge between them first formed, but they may also even be the ancestors of the giraffes and elephants and everything else you’d see in a Disney movie underneath a baby lion being held over a cliff.
If it weren’t for Google Earth, they would be holding up bowls of pasta from inside of countertops across Italy right now.