Monday, March 30, 2009

Access Denied! When ignorance stops science

I've been back from my field trip for exactly a week now, but I simply haven't found time to blog at all. The field crew was a large one and juggling the group was logistically difficult - especially in the face of having to make up new plans on the spot, when the old ones fell through. What went wrong? I'll tell you.
The trip was originally planned to continue work began last year by a joint Wits - BSP (Munich) expedition with a small contingent (Richard Butler) from the NHM (London). This trip began exploration and collection in the historically rich Herschel district of what is now the Eastern Cape. As a breif primer it was this district that produced the holotypes of Melanorosaurus readi, Plateosauravus cullingworthi, Heterodontosaurus tucki, Blikanasaurus cromptoni and Stormbergia dangershoeki as well as a some of the best specimens of Massospondylus carinatus and the spectacular complete skeleton of Heterodontosaurus (not the holotype).
Politically the area is a difficult one to work in because historically it was an isolated fragment of the Transkei, a 'homeland' for black south africans - not to dissimilar to Indian reservations in the US. Although integrated with South Africa in 1994, the Herschel district has remained in dire poverty and partly under the old governance of cheifs and big men. The national government has however set up wards and councillors who are supposed to work together with the traditional rulers.
It was some trepidation that our team stepped into this region, with the view of exploring this territory. One of our goals was placing new positively associated and identified dinosaur specimens on accurately measured strat sections to better understand dinosaur distributions through the Elliot. We also just wanted to see what else we could find to flesh out the fauna of the Elliot - many taxa are still known from single specimens and new discoveries are made often enough to indicate that the discovery curve for the Elliot is not yet near a plateau.
We decided that Blikana Mountain - magnificent area of near continuous outcrop would form the basis of our search effort. After contacting the local councillor responsible for Blikana and meeting with her we were granted permission to explore and excavate.
Although the region has a fearsome reputation we found the locals friendly, somewhat bemused by our interest in stones and eager to help. Many knew about fossilised bones and told us about likely sites.
Thus when we returned this year we were hoping this good relationship would continue. Alas it was not so.
Immediately upon arrival we knew something was up. We had to meet with the councillor in town and under no circumstances set foot on Blikana. It turns out that the councillor was not going to grant us access because she claimed some residents of the area thought we were digging up the bones of their forefathers and robbing their graves and she supported their concerns. It seems the problem started when we showed the councillor herself some of the dinosaur bones we were looking for and gave them to the local school for educational purposes (isolated surface bones are generally abundant). This part of South Africa must be one of the very few places on Earth where the general population has never heard of dinosaurs. Sadly the councillor was unwilling to listen to our explanation that these bones predated any human and were certainly not hers or anyone elses ancestors. Reason didn't seem to work when we pointed out that these bones patently couldn't even fit inside a human body. I suspect that there was more to the problem than was being stated, perhaps we were a difficult problem and the councillor simply wished us to go away. Afterall the elections are near, there has been a split in the ruling party and tensions are running high. No politician wishes to stick their neck out at times like these. Another argument levelled at us was that we were giving no benefit to the locals. Here we are fighting an insidious meme that unfortunately has deep roots in South Africa, that is science = colonial imperialism. Sadly we could not convince her that our science uncovered important natural heritage for all South Africans, indeed all people of the world to share.
In anycase the exposures of the Elliot Formation are simply too good to ignore (they are the best in South Africa), it seems we will have to embark on a campaign to raise local awareness of the important natural heritage that lies beneath their feet.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Off into the field

Its a mad mad world at the moment. I'm currently preparing for a big field trip into the wild yonder of the Eastern Cape with a team from the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie, Munich and the Natural History Museum London. I'd love to blog about: Basal theropods with bird like hand postures; my second paper dealing with the fossil cowrie fauna of South Australia; the non-existance of Ward and Smith's single Permo-Triassic event bed in the Karoo Basin; or any number of other things. But I just don't have the time or the energy right now. So things are going to be real quiet here until I get back from the field (hopefully laden with fantastic new dinosaur specimens that I would unfortunately not be able to you about anyway until they were published....sigh.