In reading the coverage given to the recent damage done to the whale fossil in Wadi Hitan several things stand out. First, coverage in the mainstream media was negligible to non existent. Second, even in coverage outside the US nobody seemed much interested in asking members of the paleontological community for comments.
One of the reasons for the importance of Wadi Hitan is that it provides the fossil record for an interesting part of whale evolution the change from land going to sea going. According to the UNEP:
They are not the oldest whale fossils but cover a vital evolutionary period of some 4 million years when these mammals evolved from land to sea-going animals. The fossils which range from young to old individuals in a great concentration of specimens, are so well preserved that even some stomach contents are intact.
One of the people most involved in bringing the evidence of this transition to light is Phillip Gingerich (also known for his work on early primates – among other things). It occurred to me that Dr. Gingerich, being so involved with Wadi Hitan, would have an interesting perspective on the damage to the fossil. So I emailed him and he has been gracious enough to allow me to use his response for this post. So, without further ado, here is Dr. Gingerich on the damage to the whale fossil at Wadi Hitan:
I have been kept informed about the damage to the whale fossil in Wadi Hitan, and don’t think there is any question that the ‘diplomats’ involved were driving where they shouldn’t have been. The core World Heritage area is now well marked, and cars are excluded. The rangers on-site in Wadi Hitan are excellent, and I know that they were very upset by what transpired.
I don’t know that the damage to the whale involved was in the million-dollar range, but people, particularly expatriates living in Egypt, have to learn to respect a site like Wadi Hitan, and to respect the people who manage it. The site itself is easily worth millions in terms of national and world heritage, and driving over fossils will destroy the site’s value.
Four-wheel-drive cars are a big threat to any fossil site. I have seen first-hand that some expatriates living in Egypt, including staff of some embassies, are much too arrogant– and seem to think that because they have a big car they can drive anywhere they want. Wadi Hitan cannot survive cars driving everywhere, the rangers at the site know this, and they are doing everything in their power to keep cars out.
I have heard similar remarks to the ones in the last paragraph from a number of people who have worked overseas, so I think this is an accurate characterization. This underscores how hard it is for countries to protect their important fossils – Lucy being shipped to Houston is another good example – even when they are trying to do the right thing. This brings us back to the question of opening archaeological sites, or in this case paleontological sites, to the public. I’m not saying we should close these sites to the public but I do think we should have a better sense of the risk involved. So I wonder if there have been any studies comparing vandalism and/or damage at sites open to the public vs closed to the public or evaluating different prevention techniques?