Digging Up Bones
  Sarah E.S. Coomber


Beside my sink lies part of a toe.

Oblong and a little larger than my big toe, it is rusty brown like the South Dakota hillside from which it came. The tip of a digit, surely, it slipped into my pocket with cuts of petrified wood and egg-shaped stones as I stepped warily through rattling prairie grasses and yellow clover, where snakes are known to sleep.

It has been with me for two years now, but I have never confirmed its identity -- half for fear it would be confiscated, made part of a collection, and half for fear it would be pronounced rock. I found it lying under the June sun partway down a slope, probably washed by recent rains from its underground tomb, far out of eye and earshot from the dug-out cliff where bone hunters picked through soil, unearthing and documenting femurs and phalanges, pelvises and teeth.

Putting a possible toe in my pocket seemed a minor offense. Besides, the hunt leader told me "There's a little bit of dinosaur in all of us," and I wanted one I could hold onto.

* * *

As a child, I was never impressed with the prehistoric animals -- scales and teeth, impossibly large bodies and claws. I saw no sense in wasting time on these beasts that were long gone; there were so many to learn about in my present. For primary school conversation's sake, though, I decided I liked the bulbous-bodied brontosaurus, with its sloping neck and mirror-image tail, all of which my imagination colored a purplish black. For me, that was the beginning and the end of the subject.

Years later, dinosaurs came up in a college biology lecture about the phylogenetic tree, which places animals on their respective branches of origin. As a bird-lover, I was captivated when the professor began discussing the likelihood that birds are related to dinosaurs -- Tyrannosaurus rex and the ostrich sharing a common ancestor! It was news to me, and I imagined a generic bird with scaly feet, piercing eyes and egg-laying capabilities -- of course the connection made sense. I learned that feathers grow from tissues similar to those that produce scales, and that bird muscles, brains and hearts are much like those of lizards. Dinosaurs were tapping at the surface of my world.

I wondered at the time whether my grandmother knew of the link. A fine-boned, well-groomed woman, she is enamored with the cardinals and blue jays that eat at her oft-replenished feeders. Theirs is not a one-way relationship: As she keeps them fed, they help her maintain control. When we visit her Illinois home and begin to discuss a subject that displeases her, she cups a gently gnarled hand to her ear. "Is that a cardinal?" she asks loudly, blue eyes focused on the distance. She is so intent, so convincing, that we fall for it, or let ourselves fall for it, every time. We stop talking and tilt our heads toward the window.

I never have told Grandma about the way I see birds, as little reptiles in disguise, sweet feathers masking sinister scales. When I visit her, we stand at the window and watch them contentedly pecking at the sunflower and thistle seeds she lovingly doles out.

I suspect most of them would prefer feeders filled with flesh.

* * *

T. rex might be surprised to see that her subtropical habitat has evolved to include the decidedly un-tropical Dakotas. Where she and Triceratops roamed 70 million years ago, cranes and geese now fly overhead, their behaviors and movements like dinosaur echoes calling across time.

When dinosaurs were grazing grass and biting into one another's haunches, North America was split by the Western Interior Seaway, which stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The tabletop-flat eastern Dakotas were largely under water while the butte- and badland-dotted western Dakotas were coastal plains with palm trees, sycamores and dense-growing plants.

In the summer of 2000, I was a newspaper reporter in Fargo, North Dakota, looking for a break from the routine. Perhaps responding to the call of a dinosaur in me, I wrangled an escape in the form of a weeklong assignment covering amateur paleontologists digging on the far side of the Dakotas.

I drove westward out of the lush Red River Valley farmland toward Bismarck and its gentle bluffs. Then I headed southward through arid prairie and into South Dakota. Considering what used to be, my imagination and eyes teamed up to play tricks on me: An airborne animal in my peripheral vision swooped after prey, and my mind's eye saw the sharp countenance of a pterodactyl. Barbwire fences could have been holding in Triceratops, not cattle. Dusty dirt roads became trails left by large, shuffling reptiles.

I opened a fence marked with an intentionally inconspicuous flag and drove my compact car through a pasture on a trail of flattened prairie grass. After bottoming out in a dry gully, I climbed over a rise and found the bone hunters' settlement of tents, lawn chairs and outdoor kitchen. A crew of a dozen, their ranks included biology students, professors, retirees and hobbyists -- all armed with pickaxes, shovels, awls and brushes. My mission was to write their stories without divulging their exact location. Like most hunters, they did not want competition.

Their quarry was the Edmontosaurus, an animal that grew to forty feet -- as long as a bus -- and weighed upwards of three and a half tons. Behind a duck-like bill, its jaws were equipped with more than a thousand teeth. Edmontosauruses were grazers, moving in herds thousands strong and using their scissors-like jaws to grind plants in a way that inspired one paleontologist to refer to them as "prehistoric Cuisinarts." They were similar in size to T. rex, the largest terrestrial carnivore of all time, and the cliff containing the group's prey housed remains of both.

* * *

Before the dinosaur hunt, Ron gave me a briefing in the sterility of a college paleontology lab. A longtime biology professor and avid bone hunter, he is built of blocks -- square jaw, square shoulders -- a middle-aged action figure with a matching rough-and-ready demeanor.

He led me around his lab showing me a length of articulated Edmontosaurus backbone, some of its vertebrae wider than my palm; the cast skull of a Pachycephalosaurus, its casing like that of a construction helmet; and bones in various stages of restoration.

Then he took me to a metal cabinet, taller than both of us and filled with shallow drawers. He opened one packed with toes in gradations of large, medium and small. He opened another, filled with metacarpals -- the bones of the forefoot -- again in varying sizes and labeled according to the position they had occupied in a foot. Another drawer held a couple of feet built from bones culled from different animals. Mix and match. Bones of relatives and bones of rivals, I imagined, forming composite feet. If my bones were unearthed, there are some people with whose bones I would rather not be mixed, even to create a foot for scientific understanding. I wonder if the dinosaurs would feel similarly.

Later, Ron showed me maps of the South Dakota bone bed. They appeared to document some crime scene, with each bone carefully drawn to show the direction it lay when uncovered. He explained how the mass grave might have originated, how 60 or 70 million years ago the bodies of these animals ended up buried in what today is pastureland on the South Dakota prairie:

Their leathery skin baking in the midday sun, the herd of Edmontosauruses milled about the edge of a river that flowed on a coastal plain near the Western Interior Seaway. Some of the animals waded in and out of the silty water, assessing its width and depth. Then the Edmontosauruses at the front of the herd set out across the water. Others followed. Thousands lumbered into the river, perhaps in search of safety. Maybe they sought more bountiful vegetation on the other side -- the proverbial greener grass.

Disaster struck.

The next shore was farther away than the animals expected. Or a young animal foundered, and panic washed over the others. Or maybe they had been hungry when they embarked on the journey, and fatigue set in quickly.

Whatever the cause, the Edmontosauruses, their powerful tails waving and four-toed front feet grasping, began to disappear beneath the murky water.

The river's silt buried them quickly, preventing scavengers from making off with their decomposing bodies and slowing the oxygen-fueled decomposition that would have eaten them out of Earth's memory. Minerals from the water filled spaces in the bones before they lost their structure. As the bones hardened, waterways came and went, as did whole communities: giant crocodiles, saber-toothed cats, small horses, camels, oreodonts, giant bison and mammoths. Climates changed, humans arrived.

Millions of years and megatons of settled sediment later, I visited the Edmontosaurus graveyard with the bone hunters, who stalked the soil as they listened to oldies music on a dented, dust-crusted radio.

* * *

I admit I have a tendency to refer to individual animals as "someone" and "anyone," whether they are cats or carp. When my T. rex-ish husband calls home during deer hunting season after a day in his tree stand, I ask hesitantly, "So, was anyone out there today?"

Intellectually, I understand the need to thin populations and head off sickness, starvation, car wrecks and suffering, but emotionally I view these animals as individuals with responsibilities to their families and herds. When a deer is shot, I do not think of it as part of a "harvest." Combining wheat is a harvest; shooting a deer leading her young to a new forage site is a kill.

The whole idea of humans heading up the rest of the animal world has never made much sense to me. One translation of the book of Genesis suggests we have "dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." My dictionary defines dominion as "supreme authority," an attitude I never have felt over the fish that leap off my line, the birds that crap on my car or the roaming cattle that could crush me. Despite my opposable thumbs, upright stature and well-developed neocortex, I feel the whole situation could turn on me in an instant. My species has a lot of smarts -- we can build and destroy skyscrapers -- but animals sense danger and direction where I never will.

The dinosaur in me must be the Edmontosaurus, for I am a grazer, hesitant to kill and eat my fellow creatures -- or pick them out of the morgue-like supermarket meat aisle. But my aversion is hypocritical, because now and then I feel the blood lust that only a salmon steak or a cheddarwurst will tame. I wonder if deer experiment with carnivorousness, or if one Edmontosaurus ever nibbled at another. If so, I wonder if they felt remorse.

* * *

Grasses, yellow clover and the occasional wild rose grow unhampered over the bone bed, which lies halfway up a cliff overlooking the gently flowing Grand River. It is packed with legs, jaws, backbones and tails in a dusky stratum laid across the landscape. Every year, Ron arranges for a skid-steer loader to tear down part of the cliff and open new paths through which the bone hunters pursue their prey.

My first morning at the site I followed the others down the bluff to the bone bed, where I planned to observe and record the work of these ardent amateur paleontologists who spend their vacations at hot, dusty dig sites. They showed me digging techniques, and Ron taught me about Earth's history by pointing out different-colored layers of earth. Standing in the midst of the rubble of this dinosaur burial site, its dust rising with each dig of a shovel or scuff of a boot, Ron declared, "There's a little bit of dinosaur in all of us." Then he delivered me to his right-hand man.

Tall and lanky, Robb is an artist and graphic designer in real life. He has the build and intensity of a long-distance runner and the ability to remain transfixed, knees on dusty kneepad, for hours by this layer of bones.

When Robb handed me a small knife, I was taken aback. I had not expected to join in the hunt, but it was difficult to refuse. He showed me how to stab the soft earth and listen for dinosaurs. Then he went back to his own work nearby.

Chip, chip, chip, clunk.

"Is that a bone?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "A clunk indicates a rock."

Chip, chip, clunk, chip, chip, clink.

The sound was metallic. Its effect was electric. I didn't have to ask. I knew my knife had closed a circuit that connected me to prehistoric times. The clink signaled contact with a huge, breathing, plodding, plant-eating animal that had lived and died millions of years earlier. Its bone had rested in peace in a hillside overlooking the side-winding Grand River until this summer day when I happened along.

Robb heard the clink and rushed to my side. He showed me how to hone in on the bone by circling it, carving out a wide area of flaky earth around it and approaching it slowly, sloughing away the ancient sediment encasing it. We took turns closing in on it, flushing it out.

Bone hunters must sneak up on their quarry in hopes it will remain intact and not escape into the Earth. Some fossilized bones are rock solid, but others are as fragile as compressed sawdust and easily disintegrate into a powdery pile of reddish-brown marrow, which works its way under your fingernails and, later, into your sandwich and probably your stomach.

Near that South Dakota site, dinosaur bones regularly pop out of eroding hillsides, washed out by summer rains. Once exposed, the wind wears them down and scatters their particles across the prairie -- into pastures grazed by cattle and the nearby river where people swim and fish. Ron reminded the group periodically about the dinosaur in all of us, and I realized that I probably have been consuming dinosaur all my life. Eating bread, corn, chicken and fish, we ingest the memories of its raising -- the hormones, the amino acids, the nutrients and contaminants from the soil and water. If, as they say, you are what you eat, what does it mean to have consumed dinosaur? What do we take from a dinosaur?

Working ever closer to this particular bone, Robb extracted a smaller knife and a brush from his kit and showed me how to clear away the soil. With latent hunting instincts emerging, I picked and pecked at it, and at last a forefoot bone shook loose in four large sections. Dark, dank earth fell away to reveal a white vascular system that for an instant looked like the remains of dinosaur flesh. Robb picked up a knife, and with one clean, dispassionate swipe scraped away what turned out to be living plant roots clinging to ancient bone.

We laid the pieces out on the side of the hill and saw a pyramid-shaped gap where a chunk was missing. With beginner's luck, I found its match in a nearby pile of debris. We fit the pieces together, wrapped them in tinfoil and secured the package with strapping tape for transit to the laboratory. My success looked like something to toss on the barbecue.

The thought seemed like some sort of sacrilege, for I had been rummaging in the most ancient and primitive of tombs.

* * *

Like long-overdue coroners, careful paleontologists read stories in the bones. They see breaks that healed and gnaw marks from predators and scavengers.

A paleontologist in Dickinson, North Dakota, told me that he speaks to bones as he unburies them and works with them. In his reverence, he envisions the animals in real-life situations: as frightened youngsters encountering their first T. rex, as hungry adults searching for food. He notes scars on the bones and wonders what disease or injury they suffered. He wonders if the animals were in pain and whether they walked with limps.

With my first find wrapped and ready, I went back to work -- chip, chip, chip -- feeling twinges of remorse. The brown bone we had uncovered, not quite the length of my size-nine foot, belonged to the foot of another much larger animal who saw Earth long before I. It enabled him or her to stomp about the plain and find food, much as my foot does. It might have helped it run after its young, as I someday might do. The animal likely used that foot to grasp for firm footing when it found itself panicking in waters over its head.

I felt a growing empathy for these great creatures who once roamed buffalo-like across the plain. That day, they walked off the pages of my borrowed paleontology books and shared with me the same strip of earth, separated only by time. Their cells and blood were long gone, but breathing in and swallowing their dust, I recognized that the little bit of dinosaur in me might be a growing bud of awareness: that dominion lasts only so long, no matter who you are, and much of it hinges on chance.

Pawing through the soil, the bone hunters tracked down more bones. They whooped when they came upon the unusual -- like serrated teeth, possibly left by a T. rex in sheared Edmontosaurus flesh, alive or dead. Some ribs fell apart in my hands: a collision of prehistory and the present. I was sickened to think these bones were unseen, untouched, unbroken, properly entombed for millions of years until I showed up.

As we worked the earth, birds circled overhead. I wondered if they knew the object of our hunt. Did their genetic memory rouse in them a yearning for the long-vanished flesh? Or were they sentries, horrified that we were desecrating an ancient burial site?

That evening we covered the work areas with plastic tarps, fastened them down with rocks and hauled the day's finds to our campsite. We took inventory of the numbers, the varieties, the quality of bones and teeth.

The bone hunters and I prepared dinner under a darkening sky. The main dish on the menu was chicken, which looked a lot like nouveau dinosaur. Feeling very T. rex-ish, I hungrily picked away at my piece of meat.