Who looks like a paleontologist? Spend enough time in the field, or wandering the conference halls of a Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting, and you’ll likely come away with the impression that a paleontologist can look like just about anybody. Granted, there is unevenness when it comes to representation in the field, but, even at a glance, the volunteers, students, preparators, curators, professors, and various other people who make this field run represent a growing array of genders, ages, national and cultural backgrounds, and more. To follow a maxim from my own profession, to be a writer, write. To be a paleontologist, paleo.
But this isn’t the picture that’s conveyed to the public. The image of Paleontologists in the public imagination continues to almost exclusively be enthusiastically-bearded white males in fedoras, waving their arms about on dusty outcrops about finds that will change everything we thought we knew. Take the focus a step back and the picture doesn’t improve much. The nature of modern science coverage has forged an image of paleontologists that is almost entirely academic – the professor or the curator, and to a lesser extent the postdoc and the graduate student. More than once I’ve been told that “You’re not a real paleontologist until you publish your first academic paper,” although even then the sense of gatekeeping about who is and who is not a paleontologist can shift according to entirely subjective categories of who’s doing the judging.
I’ve had my role in this, too. I’ve built my career on talking about studies published in peer-reviewed journals, riding the flood of papers coming out of the field. As a body of work, that means I am primarily highlighting career academics and paleontology coming out of professional institutions with occasional reference to historical figures in the field. And that creates a false image. It’s a pinhole view into how paleontology is carried out, glossing over and even ignoring the thousands of people who have discovered fossils, prepared them, and otherwise contributed to the field.
The point struck me while listening to paleontologist Matt Brown speak at this month's Pop Palaeo workshop in Raleigh, North Carolina. His presentation focused on community outreach, finding ways to connect paleontology to a public who is largely unaware of the fossils that are sometimes literally in their own back yards. But what especially struck me was the opening context about how a fantastic collection of Cenozoic fossils – just described as the Lapara Creek Fauna by paleontologist Steven May – were excavated by people employed by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Without their efforts, the fossils might still be in the ground, or could have crumbled to shards.
WPA crews excavated fossils at various places around the country as part of America’s New Deal startup, and, if I’m honest, I haven’t always written about them in the most flattering way. These amateur crews rarely had any training in paleontology and sometimes destroyed fossils in the process of excavating them. But emphasizing this point overshadows the fact that many of our early paleo heroes did the same, accidentally destroying specimens, not taking good field notes, selling or trading important specimens to other institutions, and head-hunting skeletons to leave the rest to crumble away. It ends up reinforcing academic authority and creates another division to shore up scientific superiority through misplaced emphasis.
So let’s look at this another way.
The excavation of the Lapara Creek fauna is a fitting example. Between March 1939 and September of 1941, May recounts, a WPA-run field crew called the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey excavated fossils from Bee and Live Oak counties in southern Texas. At a high point, in June of 1939, 97 field workers assisted seven supervisors to run digs split into 23 field units. All of which to say, this was a major operation, with the training done in the field. In a photo of field workers from a spot called the Buckner Ranch Site 1, May notes “The majority of these workers had no geologic or paleontologic experience and were paid $0.20/hour through the WPA.”
These crews uncovered an entire menagerie of fossil beasts and other creatures that roamed Texas over 10 million years ago. They dug up alligators, turtles, rhinos, 12 species of horses, and, as May points out, a new species of fossil elephant now dubbed Blancotherium buckneri. About 50 species of fossil vertebrates have been identified from several sites uncovered during the project, from fish to prehistoric dogs. And their work didn’t stop there. A laboratory in Austin employed 50 preparators to clean and attempt to restore the fossils so that they would look more complete – a practice frowned on today, but common at the time. The field and lab crews were kept busy through 1941, when May notes that mineralogical goals became more important, but the WPA work created an enormous collection that otherwise would have remained in the ground. Academic paleontologists oversaw the projects, identified the fossils, curated them, and have described them, but the collection wouldn’t have existed without the amateur employees.
Paleontology still relies on crews like this. Full-time curators, professors, and lab technicians are far outnumbered by students and volunteers who are vital to the field. (Later at the same Pop Palaeo meeting, a museum-employed paleontologist wryly noted that he and his professional colleagues had to carry jacketed fossils out themselves as they didn’t have any undergrads to do the grunt work on a prestigious trip.) Finding a fossil or spending hours in the prep lab as a volunteer might get a new species named in your honor, but these hard-working crews are largely invisible to the public. They often get less thanks than the dreaded, anonymous Reviewer 3 in the acknowledgements sections of scientific papers.
Perhaps we’ve been totally focused on the wrong question. Who is and is not a paleontologist is often treated as a binary option whose accuracy depends on the authority of who's doing the asking. Coming down with a universal common denominator is likely to reinforce the image that only academics contribute to the field, further making broader communities invisible. Perhaps the question we should be asking is “How do you contribute to paleontology?” That paleontology is a process of understanding, and there are various ways to foster the field. The dinosaur fan who gives up their vacation week and $20 a day for camp meals is vital to the science just as the tenured professor, their roles being different but complementary. No matter how you define “paleontologist,” uncovering the past is a community effort.