46 million years ago, the site of Natchitoches, Louisiana was covered by a shallow, subtropical sea. Its waters teemed with life. Over 150 different species of marine vertebrates, invertebrates, and vegetation have been uncovered in a large fossiliferous outcrop a few miles northwest of the city. Called the Cane River Formation, the outcrop was casually exposed in the 1980s during the construction of Interstate Highway 49.
The Cane River Formation is significant because sites of its type are so rare. Louisiana’s humid, swampy climate is not at all conducive to fossil preservation. Exposed specimens are often obscured by thick vegetation or dissolved by flooding and erosion. The Cane River site’s low, road-side “cut” of rock will soon fall victim to rapid weathering as well. However, the outcrop’s rich diversity hints that more fossil collections are waiting to be found underneath the jumble of buildings and concrete in Natchitoches. Proud and protective of the hallmarks of its recent history, the city won’t yet reveal the secrets of its ancient past.
Indeed, Natchitoches is known for many things beyond its paleontology. The city was founded in 1714, becoming the oldest permanent settlement contained within the area of the Louisiana Purchase. Originally a French outpost for trade with Mexico, it developed into an important site for the transfer of cotton freight. During the Civil War, the Confederate army used Natchitoches to store cotton, and the town gained a reputation as a Southern social hub, hosting large social gatherings and philanthropic events. While these stories are all features of the common Natchitoches narrative, expository material concerning the area that is presented in scientific journals has been undeservedly overlooked by historical record. Not only does the practice of fossil-finding in Natchitoches add a novel layer to some of the chief concerns of contemporary American paleontology, it sheds light on the vastly different ways U.S. states approach and value similar resources.
Paleontology is by nature a self-reflecting and self-critical discipline. The book The Practical Paleontologist points out that “most people imagine paleontology to be the dry and dusty domain of university professors and museum staff,” countering that amateur fossil-hunting is steadily growing into an active pastime. The often-friendly dichotomy between professional and amateur fossil collectors is a common trope found in paleontological literature. For example, the first item listed in the “Code of Fossil Collecting” of the Paleontological Society in Boulder, Colorado states that “the principal importance of fossils is for scientific, scholarly, and educational use of both professionals and amateurs.” Thus, it is implied that purposes of fossil hunting are restricted to study and hobby – the discipline at large does not address what might occur when fossils are found within the context of business or politics.
The fossils of northwestern Louisiana cannot be confined to the domain of the enthusiastic or eccentric because most of them have been found by parties who are not the slightest bit interested in paleontology in the first place. In 1931, a geologist wrote that Ohio Oil Company Executive C.L. Moody had “kindly permitted” him to report that a species of fossil mollusks (Ostea lisbonensis) had been found in a drilling area between the Cane River and Shreveport. In 1943, vertebrae fragments of an extinct early whale were collected during a ground water survey in Natchitoches. Promptly sent to the United States National Museum for identification, it was never formally described by a professional paleontologist until 1998. The highly valuable Cane River Formation was only uncovered by fortuitous highway construction. Contrary to the typical mold laid out (or perhaps wished for) by scientific organizations, these fossil sites would not have been found without the aid of economic or infrastructural development.
Mark D. Uhen was the scientist that rediscovered and named the above-mentioned whale fossil specimen in a 1998 study entitled “New Protocetid (Mammalia, Cetacea) from the Late Middle Eocene Cook Mountain Formation in Louisiana.” He dubbed the animal Natchitochia jonesi according to popular custom: the genus for the locality (Natchitoches) and the species for the original water-surveyor who discovered it, Paul H. Jones. Unfortunately, Uhen’s study does not explain why the specimen was forgotten and stored away for so long. Whether for lack of interest or funding, it took over fifty years to catalog and identify an entirely new species of animal. Given that the specimen is from a large mammalian vertebrate, a rarity among rarities in this specific area of the world, the find should have received more attention from both scholars and the public.
Unlike the gigantic fossil deposits in states such as Wyoming and Utah, where dinosaur bone discoveries command newspaper headlines, Louisiana’s lesser-known fossil cache is free from both the positive and negative effects of public exposure. In 1997, a division of the International Senckenberg Conference and Workshop (made up of six American and three non-American scientists) codified eight reasons why the discipline of paleontology needs to be improved. “Public awareness of paleontology is extremely dinosaur-focused… while the larger part of the discipline goes unheralded and unknown,” lamented the workshop participants. Thus, fossil shells, shark teeth, and whale bone fragments are not generally perceived as being glamorous or marketable state resources. In states such as Texas and Louisiana, fossils are more often only thought of in the context of being profitable “fossil fuels” – an expected consequence of the ubiquitous Gulf oil industry.
The Senckenberg Conference attendees also put forth a damning critique of the discipline’s efforts to make itself more accessible to parties outside of its typical circle. Paleontology, they wrote, “has not put forth enough effort into informing and educating the public about what it does and what it contributes.” In the context of the Natchitoches fossils, the lack of effort can be seen when the discipline overlooked the fact that businesses entirely blind to “study and hobby” discovered groundbreaking fossil deposits that the “classic” fossil-hunter-type with picket and shovel could never have had the means to access. An Ohio Company oil baron with his “kind permission” and the bulldozers of the I-49 construction company ended up becoming unlikely scientific heroes.
Sometimes scholars face trouble bridging the gap between the humanities and the physical sciences. While history research can be enriched through an understanding of the detail contained within scientific “jargon,” scientific studies can benefit from incorporating more historical context into their procedures. For example, Uhen’s study touches only briefly on the background of the whale specimen’s discovery, but the small mention is enough to pique interest in historically-minded people. An alliance between history and science could raise Louisiana’s fossil history out of obscurity and help the field of paleontology overcome its self-professed shortcomings. The Natchitoches fossils may not have the visceral appeal that Utah or Wyoming’s dinosaur bones do, but they can become more than a footnote in the colorful historical narrative that stimulates this region.
Steve Parker and Raymond L Bernor, editor, The Practical Paleontologist (New York: Quarto, 1990).
Frank A. Garcia and Donald S. Miller, Discovering Fossils (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stockpole Books, 1998).
J.C. Maher and P.H. Jones, “Ground Water Exploration in the Natchitoches Area Louisiana” (Washington: US Department of the Interior, 1949).
Mark D. Uhen, “New Protocetid (Mammalia, Cetacea) from the Late Middle Eocene Cook Mountain Formation of Louisiana,” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep. 15, 1998), pp. 664-668.