Last summer, our river boat captain – Chicki, from the Machiguenga people in Peru – was telling me about a couple of fossils he’d found a bit farther down the river but could not remember what he had done with them. Most likely gathering dust at his home, or gifted to a family member. He wondered how those pieces of bone and teeth could be of use to us. Mind you, we were on a $15,000, month-long field campaign at the time, hoping to identify and sample fossil-rich sites in the Amazon rainforest, for an ongoing project that hopefully will result in having a complete fauna and flora described for a crucial time period in the evolution of the Amazon rainforest – and for which virtually no fossils have been reported yet.
In my best Spanish (which is pretty horrible) I went about explaining our research goals, pointing to the fact that the Amazon rainforest has seemingly served as a species pump throughout Earth’s history, yet we lack any evidence of the evolutionary pathways within the rainforest. For just Peru, the rainforest occupies an area that is four times the size of Texas or France, yet it is poorly studied due to inaccessibility. Only the results of evolution are known to us, from a very select few localities on the edges of the continent (the two best ones being one site in Colombia, and a cluster of sites in southern Argentina).
Once Chicki was aware of what we were trying to accomplish, we got pointed to a couple of localities where he, and other of his friends, had been finding fossil bits. Long story short, in the limited sampling time that we had, we managed to stumble upon some awesome discoveries! When doing paleontology in the Amazon rainforest, ban all images from Jurassic Park from your mind. No nicely preserved Velociraptor skeletons waiting to be dusted off here. Pieces of teeth, sometimes an articulated end of a bone, fish vertebrae, that is the kind of stuff you can retrieve, and that only after manually breaking up rocks, sieving them and picking out the fossil bits by hand. A fossil rich site means you get maybe six teeth out of 50 kilograms of rock.
In the end, two teeth and a piece of bone stood out most for us, and they were so promising that we are going back for a longer field season this summer. However, Peru, like most countries in the world, views fossil material as patrimonial heritage. This means that no fossils can leave the country for detailed study in the coziness of your lab. Solution: create a cozy lab at a Peruvian university that shares your interest, and have the added benefit of getting access to a whole pool of enthusiast, motivated, and smart students that are very eager to help out with research. And suddenly you realize again that being able to do all this research is a true privilege.
This is what this post is about (sorry for the long intro). This is the stage where I am right now with my research, setting up collaborations with South American universities. I am writing this very post from a start-up university in Yachay, Ecuador, after just having left Peru where our research group have initiated collaborations with another university (Universidad Nacional de Piura).
Visiting all these universities and getting to interact with their faculty and students is an eye-opening experience. The level of enthusiasm for paleontology is only surpassed by the need for funding and basic equipment. What first seemed as a burden (having to set up shop in Peru instead of transporting the fossils to the USA) has turned into something I look very much forward to, getting to work and interact with students that put their heart and soul into the project, and helping to build a out a work environment in which they can thrive in the future. Because if anyone should take a lead in discovering the history of the Amazonian rainforest, it should be them.