History in a Box

Pair Builds Fossil Collection For 40 Years
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Jun 9, 2009

The nondescript red brick building on Broad Street looks like the real estate office it once was. But inside, the Duke Lemur Center's Division of Fossil Primates is a world-class treasure trove: more than 24,000 fossils of skulls and bones, some of them dating back 50 million years.


Just inside the entrance, visitors are greeted by a huge jaw of Gigantopithecus blackii, a 10-foot-tall ape that once lived in India, or perhaps lives there still, if you believe in the Yeti.

And there, at a long table that can amaze and entertain up to 19 students at once, Elwyn Simons and Prithijit Chatrath are working side by side on fossil specimens, just as they have for more than 40 years.
The fruits of a long collecting career line the overhead shelves, dangle in transparent cases and lurk in hundreds of wooden drawers. They create a mosaic that links humans to the primate past, and to today's lemurs, which Simons calls "living fossils."

Most of the specimens are from the rock, sand and mesa of the Fayum Desert, about 60 miles southwest of Cairo, Egypt, where fossils of the earliest primates are relatively common. The fragmentary remains had to endure flooding, desiccation and even volcanism as the north African climate changed from wet to bone-dry during an interval spanning up to 37 million years, only to be gathered up by visiting students and local excavators using brooms, chisels and dental picks.

"You have to be incredibly protective of fossils," division director Simons said. "Each one of them is unique and they break easily."

Simons was still at Yale when he first hired Chatrath as a field manager for an expedition in India in 1967. Born in India,  Chatrath is a master of many arts. As the collection's chief curator and field manager, he often does painstaking specimen preparations that entail weeks of using dental picks and brushes under a microscope.

Trained in geology, Chatrath is also considered an exceptional fossil spotter and expedition organizer who has also mastered the complex guidelines for legally exporting fossils.

The two cut swashbuckling visages in earlier photographs and have plenty of tales about the challenges of collecting. (SEE "In the Fayum with Elwyn")

"One of the caves in southwestern Madagascar was entered by a shaft deeper, at about 400 feet, than the Washington Monument is tall," Simons recalled. "You go on one of the worst roads in the world to get there. And (Prithijit) and I are the ones who best know how to do that kind of work."

A biologist interested in the history, biology and behavior of both living and extinct primates, Simons joined Duke's faculty in 1977 to become the second director of the Duke Primate Center, forerunner of the Duke Lemur Center.

Skulls from Professor Elwyn Simons lab."But when I came to Duke we realized that that there was not a representation of fossil lemurs here," said Simons. He set out to change that by transferring his Egyptian fossil-hunting project from Yale and by beginning to collect significant not-quite-petrified "subfossils" from Madagascar.

Both Chatrath and Simons, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Evolutionary Anthropology, have been knighted by the government of Madagascar for their efforts to preserve that island nation's natural history.

Among the most important surviving heirlooms in the collection are the jaws and skull parts of 27 million year-old Aegyptopithecus, an ancient relative whose ancestry lies near the base of the lineages of humans, apes and monkeys.

Also noteworthy are skulls and jaws of Catopithicus, an even older relative of the monkey, ape and human.

"So much of what we know about primate evolutionary history comes directly from work with those fossils," said Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center. "I consider it an important part of the lemur center's mission to maintain these fossils in good condition and make them accessible to the scientific public. We value the collection and would like to see Elwyn's work continue. He's one of the five or 10 most renowned paleontologists in the world."

At age 78, Simons continues in his job as fossil division director and still publishes articles on his many fossil finds. He plans to return to Egypt for next fall's collecting season.

"We have to see that somebody continues our research work and further builds this collection," said Simons.

Monte Basgall is a Senior Science Writer in Duke News and Communications.