Thursday, November 20, 2008

Deutschland Rocks

(You knew the title was only a matter of time)

One of the perks of being a geologist is you can never really be bored. Even if you are in the middle of nowhere, there is always a story under your feet. In fact, many rock people would argue that the more remote and unexplored a place is, the more fascinating it becomes. One of the problems of being interested in rocks and dirt (besides the obvious need for frequent bathing and social isolation) is you are always desperate to know the age of the rocks you’re looking at. I frequently find myself examining outcrop along the highway, hankering for a good geologic map. In the United States, this map rests comfortably in my head in gross generalization, but in Central Europe, I’m at a loss.

An example of befuddling European geography, complete with castle for scale.

But, if you were briefly worried about my intellectual welfare, fear not. I am currently enrolled in a introductory paleontology course. Of course, it is completely auf Deutsch. This means I now know such useful words as Seeigel (See urchin, or literally “Sea Hedgehog”) and oberdevon (Upper-Devonian).

A field trip to the Eifel Mountains was mandatory for all students in the class. We were told explicitly to bring our hammers. We were also told explicitly where we were headed and to bring a lunch. The first was meaningless since I had very little sense of my wider geographic position and the second got lost in the shuffle.

Our trip began with everyone piling into a nice tour bus. In the States I think such an excursion would have been coordinated with vans and personal vehicles, but here in Germany we roll to the outcrop in style. The first stop was to an overlook of the Eifel Mountains. Dr. Martin, my adviser, launched into an explanation of what we were looking at. I caught key words like Karbon (The Carboniferous) and Berg (Mountain) but that was about it. Dr. Martin speaks very quickly and without any other visual aid, I realized I may need to track down the history of the region on my own.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve had to work a lot harder in my classes than I first expected. When I signed up for Intro Paleo and Mammalian Osteology, I assumed the key vocabulary, the endless Latin and Greek nouns that dominate the field, would be pretty much the same. I neglected two factors. First, pronunciation makes things a bit slower to process, even if the word is exactly the same. Second, Geology and Anatomy are some of the oldest sciences with Geology finding its roots in Prehistoric mining and Anatomy in butchery. Thus, the Germans had their own relatively technical terms for rock types and muscle groups that haven’t been replaced by the English versions I’ve learned. This is the bummer of studying in a culture that has been pursuing questions empirically for as long as my own.

Fortunately, Irina, a post-doc, offered some translation and summary to help ground me (pun intended) in the wildly dipping beds held vertical to the ground after Africa slammed into Europe the first time. One of our stops included a visit to the oldest coal bed in the world. Coal is the organic remainder of plant material and the coal preserves the first land plants on earth. Their pretty simple reed-like organisms, but they represent a revolution that rearranged the way water flowed, rocks eroded, even how the atmosphere is composed. Of course I took my hammer to the rocks and searched for evidence of these terrestrial pioneers, along with the rest of the class. Because it is an introductory course, there were a lot of new hammers striking the rock face, their sheen and stickers still intact. I’m not used to being treated as an older student (I certainly don’t look it), but after people saw the scratches and scars on my hammer, I was asked repeatedly what my doctoral research was on.

The next stop was into a limestone quarry. The rock is primarily used to produce concrete and massive earthmovers are used to transport tons of rock. As our tour bus rolled up to the quarry, an operator of one of the massive vehicles literally gaped in slack-jawed wonder. I don’t think he is used to luxury tour busses dropping by with a couple dozen students ready to stream over the rocks looking for shells, but there we were and that’s what we were hoping to do.

Again the hammers came out, but so did the helmets. I now have a couple Devonian snail shells and brachiopods sitting in my room. I’m envisioning packing them up to send them home, the Deutsche Bank cashier hefting the box, “What’s in here, a bunch of rocks?” “Yup.”

The final stop was to a cave in the mountains which once held Cave Bear fossils, Cave Hyenas, and, most importantly for us, humans. The floor of the cave preserves successive layers of human habitation including Neanderthals and European ancestors. Maybe not as old as the human remains I saw in Kenya, but there’s a thrill in exploring sites that preserve my more direct ancestors who settled down in Europe to carve out a living. It’s enough to tempt me back into paleoanthropology, but then the allure of tacking a few more zeros onto my dates starts to draw me back in time.A skylight used by humans for, literally, thousands of generations.

I hope you spend some time exploring the history under your feet, wherever they may take you. Just don't forget to bring a hammer.

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