A Fear­less Fos­sil Hunter

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY STAVROS DAMOS

Karolyn Shindler in­tro­duces the pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Dorothea Bate, a re­mark­able char­ac­ter from his­tory who cheated star­va­tion to dis­cover a se­ries of re­mark­able dwarf mam­mals

In the lat­est in­stal­ment of our oc­ca­sional se­ries pro­fil­ing re­mark­able yet un­her­alded char­ac­ters from his­tory, Karolyn Shindler in­tro­duces the palaeon­tol­o­gist Dorothea Bate, who climbed moun­tains, swam to re­mote caves and cheated star­va­tion to dis­cover a se­ries of re­mark­able dwarf mam­mals

Even at four o’clock in the morn­ing it was warm. The stars were just begin­ning to lose their bril­liance, but it was still dark. Light would not come for at least an hour. But Dorothea Bate had just one thought: to reach her goal at the edge of the sea on the far side of the in­hos­pitable Akrotiri penin­sula in west­ern Crete. It was a haz­ardous jour­ney, by pony, of sev­eral hours, and even by 8am the tem­per­a­ture on that ex­posed, lime­stone ter­rain could be 30°C or more.

Bate had ar­rived in Crete on 5 March 1904, and for nearly five months the coura­geous 25-year-old had ex­plored from one end of this long, moun­tain­ous is­land to the other. She was hunt­ing for ex­tinct fos­sil mam­mals to add to the col­lec­tions of the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in Lon­don. She had no com­pan­ions. Dorothea ex­plored alone, hir­ing lo­cal men as guides or to do the heavy dig­ging – or to set the gun­pow­der or dy­na­mite when the only way she knew to get through a rock floor was to blast it open.

So far she had dis­cov­ered ex­tinct species of dwarf hip­pos, no larger than a pig, ex­tinct species of deer and the bones of an an­cient species of full-size ele­phant. What she was des­per­ate to find were the re­mains of the dwarf ele­phants she was sure must have once ex­isted on the is­land, but had so far eluded her. This hot July morn­ing was her last chance be­fore she had to re­turn home.

So dif­fi­cult was the go­ing as she neared the sea that she left her pony and con­tin­ued on foot. “Beastly hot and rough walk­ing,” she noted in her di­ary, but in the blaz­ing sun­shine and with the heat of the rock com­ing through her boots, she strug­gled on. And fi­nally, on the sea-bat­tered shore of the Akrotiri, she was fi­nally “well re­warded for this at last was the place I have been look­ing for”. Some weeks pre­vi­ously, Dorothea had been given a fos­sil dwarf ele­phant tooth (see il­lus­tra­tion, on the next page) which she had been told came from the area, and in­cred­i­bly, here in the rock she “saw the im­print from where it had been bro­ken off”. From “fright­fully hard” rock she man­aged to ex­tract spec­i­mens in­clud­ing mo­lar teeth and sections of a tiny tusk – vi­tal in iden­ti­fy­ing the species of an­i­mal. On her re­turn to the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in Lon­don, the dwarf ele­phant was dis­cov­ered to be a species new to science. It was named Ele­phas

creti­cus Bate.


Dorothea Mi­nola Alice Bate was born in Wales in 1878. Much of her child­hood was spent ob­serv­ing birds or learn­ing to iden­tify in­sects near the river Teifi. When her fam­ily moved to the Wye Val­ley, she be­came fas­ci­nated by the small Ice Age fos­sils she found in the lime­stone caves there.

In 1898, when she was just 19, Bate talked her way into a job at the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum. This was a time when it was al­most wholly a male pre­serve; women were not em­ployed on the sci­en­tific staff un­til 1928. Dorothea was al­ways an un­of­fi­cial sci­en­tific worker, paid piece­work de­pend­ing on the num­ber of fos­sils she pre­pared. Although not a mem­ber of staff, such was her abil­ity that in 1924 she was ap­pointed cu­ra­tor of Ice Age birds and mam­mals.

Dorothea had charm, wit and in­tel­li­gence – and ab­so­lutely no un­der­stand­ing of the word ‘no’. She was self-taught but the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum was her uni­ver­sity and her life. It was sci­en­tists there who en­cour­aged her to ex­plore the Mediter­ranean and it was Dorothea’s pi­o­neer­ing work that re­vealed the main ex­tinct species of the is­lands. Dorothea’s ad­ven­tures re­ally be­gan in 1901. With fam­ily friends, she trav­elled to Cyprus where she planned sys­tem­at­i­cally to search for fos­sil mam­mals in the lime­stone caves of the is­land. She is thought to have been the first per­son, male or fe­male, to do so, and her fos­sil col­lec­tions – from Cyprus, Crete, the Balearic Is­lands, Malta and Beth­le­hem – are pre­served in the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum.

She put her­self at ex­treme risk dur­ing her ex­ca­va­tions, con­tract­ing malaria in Cyprus, scar­let fever in Ma­jorca and nearly starv­ing in Crete. In west Crete, on be­ing told of a bone cave in­ac­ces­si­ble by boat, she climbed down the cliff, swam to the cave, ex­ca­vated some fos­sil bones there, and swam back, car­ry­ing her ge­o­log­i­cal ham­mer and bag con­tain­ing her finds. She en­dured hor­ren­dous jour­neys by boat and rattling carts. She suf­fered dread­fully from travel sick­ness, slept in flea-in­fested hov­els and yet, wrote the Amer­i­can ar­chae­ol­o­gist Edith Hall, whom she met in Crete in 1904, she “dresses well”.


In Ma­jorca and Menorca, Bate dis­cov­ered the re­mains of a small an­i­mal unique to those is­lands, which is so spe­cialised there isn’t even a com­mon name for it. She called it My­otra­gus, mouse goat. It’s a small goaty an­te­lope, with ex­tra­or­di­nary front teeth usu­ally only found in ro­dents. It is a mar­vel­lous ex­am­ple of evo­lu­tion, adap­ta­tion, sur­vival – and ex­tinc­tion. She had a skele­ton con­structed (see il­lus­tra­tion) from the splen­did bones she dis­cov­ered and to­day, for the first time in more than 70 years, it is on dis­play in the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum.

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