Last week, the class was working backwards – we visited a field of cow bones and considered evidence to try and decide how they got there. The exercise was designed to get us thinking about taphonomy, the state of remains as they enter and exist in the fossil record. It explains why so few fossils are actually articulated in the shape of a skeleton; factors like wind, snow, and scavengers all play a role in shuffling the bones in such a way that they’re hard to make sense of. It was remarkable to see that dead cow spread fifty meters across the plain – modern forces like the wind and snow and scavengers work fast. The cow died a matter of years ago. Once I considered that effect of destructive ecological factors, I gained an appreciation for just how perfect the depositional environment must be for a fossil in the deep past to be preserved well. It has to be swallowed by mud almost immediately, and then left undisturbed for millions of years. Without brilliant archaeologists to assemble odd bones into the dinosaurs we know and love, we wouldn’t know what we know or know what to love. Their work is vitally important, and based on the principles of taphonomy that we learned in the field.
We worked backwards at the La Prele mammoth site, too. Archaeologists have spent years there excavating mammoth remains and ancient human artifacts with one overarching goal: piecing together the social dynamics of hunter-gatherer tribes. Ancient people might as well be aliens to us, but when we think about them as compared to modern humans, it turns out that they were making some of the same practical judgements that we do. Their presence in Central Wyoming is explained by the same reason that the Oregon Trail or I-80 exists there: the break in the Rocky Mountains that allows easier travel. Our problems were their problems, and our solution was their solution, too.
I’ve learned that the approach that explains ancient mysteries with modern logic – working backwards – succeeds in paleontology and archaeology. I’m reminded that deep time is still time on Earth and is bound by most of the same rules that we are. It’s all connected, and that’s no conspiracy.