Zoe Valery | Longreads | February 2019 | 18 minutes (5,011 words)

— Orocual tar pit, northeastern Venezuela, 2007 C.E.

Ascanio Rincón was standing on a veritable fossil paradise when one of his students brought to his attention a tooth that was sticking out through the dirt. The site presented innumerable shards of prehistoric bones that had been fortuitously unearthed by a steamroller digging a trench for a pipeline. After assessing the value of the site, the young paleontologist stood his ground to protect the tar pit where millions of fossils have been preserved by the asphalt, eventually forcing the workers to redraw the course of the oil duct. When he cleaned around the tooth that was embedded in the trench wall, he found that it was attached to the skull of a creature that the steamroller had missed only by inches. He looked at the eye socket in disbelief: “A saber-toothed tiger was looking at me in the eye,” he recalls. This specimen would constitute a groundbreaking discovery for Rincón and a landmark for the field of paleontology in Venezuela and at large.

To this day, Richard Parker — named after the tiger in Life of Pi — remains one of the most remarkable findings in the country and one of Rincón’s dearest fossils. The sabre-toothed tiger has shed light on a migratory wave during the Ice Age that the scientific community previously had not been aware of. Due to the current mass migration of people from Venezuela, Rincón is one of the only scientists left in the country tapping into the overwhelming wealth of fossils yet to be uncovered at the Orocual tar pit. Like most of his colleagues, the eight students he had trained have all left the country, joining 3 million other Venezuelans fleeing the rampant economic crisis, creating what has been described by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as the most dire refugee crisis on the continent. Rincón is an endling — the only extant individual of a species — in his field: the last vertebrate paleontologist in Venezuela.*

Bone by bone, Rincón slowly reconstructs not just prehistory, but also a past that weighs on present-day Venezuela.

Like many other professionals in Venezuela, Rincón earned $4.10 each month in 2018 in a country where the cost of a chicken had reached 14.6 million bolívares, the equivalent of $2.22. Scarcity has become widespread in this oil state with the highest inflation rate in the world — a hyperinflation that could hit 10,000,000 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Prices have risen above 1,000,000 percent in the past year. Venezuela’s economy has been in decline for years, falling apart at a meteoric rate during Nicolás Maduro’s presidency with the collapse of crude prices in 2014. The country has become increasingly reliant on oil, which constitutes 98 percent of its total exports. Food shortages have reached alarming levels that are described in cataclysmic terms by the global media.

“Everything is difficult,” Rincón laments. “This is science in extreme conditions.” Nowadays, Rincón excavates on his own, recruiting whoever agrees to help him wield pickax and shovel. Still, with very little money, paying for his fieldwork excursions out of pocket, Rincón continues to perform what he calls “big league science” by regularly publishing in the top scientific journals of his field. In 2011, Rincón’s paper on Richard Parker appeared in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. He gave the tiger the scientific denomination of Homotherium venezuelensis, which translates into “Venezuelan man-beast.”

* * *

Homotherium venezuelensis

Richard Parker … or Ascanio Rincón?

He battles dampness with a dehumidifier that often overflows with the condensed moisture distinctive of the outskirts of Caracas, where his small office is located, in the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) at the end of a long hall of empty rooms, vacated by colleagues who have fled the country. He faces a scarcity of supplies — toilet paper, plastic bags, bond paper, Sharpies — that has become prevalent in Venezuela. Still, with more than 20,000 fossils collected from his excursions, Rincón’s small office is a repository of paleontological treasures and geological data. For Rincón, reading the earth’s strata is akin to looking through a box of photographs, each layer constituting a snapshot of a particular period. He remarks that, in the present, we are looking at the last photogram of 4,500 million years of evolution.

The office of Ascanio Rincón. Photo courtesy of Ascanio Rincón.

A public figure who often gets recognized on the street, the 44-year-old Rincón is active on social media, posting photos of the Jurassic — Cenozoic or Pleistocene might be more accurate — world that he has studied throughout the 25 years of his career. A 360-degree picture on his Facebook account transports the viewer to the center of his 24-square-meter workplace, which constitutes a self-contained landscape with its own archival geology. New beasts arise from the office’s spatial constraints amid a mélange of interlocking teeth, horns, and aeons: a Cerberus made up of tapir, a toothed bird, a crocodylian here; a jumble of three giant femurs and a dinosaur-like cranium over there. With his characteristic ponytail and sporty prescription glasses, Rincón sits, with brush in hand, in front of a bone mass that outsizes his own torso. On the other side, framed by open jaws of all sorts, his assistant delicately touches Richard Parker’s skull.

The most recent “photogram” on Rincón’s Facebook wall — which offers a layered display of his blurred professional and personal lives — is a selfie of him at his desk alone. Rincón’s assistant has long since left the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere. But Richard Parker’s skull remains on his desk, with its fleshless, sabre-toothed smile. Regularly posing with the tiger’s fossil in photos, Rincón is reminiscent of Hamlet holding up the skull of Yorick. Yet here the crucial question he constantly asks himself, amid new difficulties to live and work in Venezuela, is the same one faced by everyone living in the country today: to leave or not to leave. Rincón is depressed, squeezed between the pressures of this dilemma.

The skull of Richard Parker. Photo courtesy of Ascanio Rincón.

Leaving the country is a particularly difficult predicament for Rincón. To leave, as his wife urges they do, would mean to give up a primeval paradise with a myriad of species waiting to be discovered. So far, Rincón has discovered 15 new species and genera in total. Abroad, he would be just one more scientist, a displaced paleontologist. Yet his 8-year-old son would have not only a future but a present that is clear of unbearable violence and scarcity. Not to leave, on the other hand, means he can remain, in his words, “the paleontologist of Venezuela” carrying out his own scientific crusade.

Despite the fact that every public institution in Venezuela is under the control of the current regime, which punishes dissent with firing and political persecution and imprisonment, Rincón is openly opposed to Nicolás Maduro, who came to power as the successor of Hugo Chávez in 2013 and banned opposition parties from contesting in the 2018 presidential election. Maduro now faces the most significant challenge to his presidency amid widespread protests in Venezuela and the world in support of the opposition leader and head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who aims to serve as interim president until new elections are held. Rincón was wounded by pellet shots during the widespread protests against the government in 2017, which left a death toll of more than 100 people, many of them minors. In the current state of turmoil and uncertainty, Rincón, who has expressed his support for Guaidó on social media, describes science as his “trench” and is intent to continue to fight his battle in his home country on these terms. Yet, even if Venezuela manages to transition to democracy in the near future, Rincón thinks the general situation in the country will remain unstable and difficult for a very long time. Still, although he sometimes entertains the possibility, emigrating is not on the visible horizon for Rincón. His horizons remain solely geological, packed with fossils begging to be unearthed on native soil.

Rincón grew up on the small island of Toas in the Lake of Maracaibo, cruising the oil-rich waters daily on a motorboat to get to the mainland to study biology in the state capital. Instead of pursuing a more conventional career in fossil fuels, he was fixated on fossils. He continued his studies at the IVIC and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In 2006, Rincón finished his postdoc in paleontology at the University of Texas, Austin. He was happy to return to his homeland, a fossil paradise, where a vast, unexplored territory and the promise of funding awaited. In Venezuela, where, the old joke goes, “all the dinosaurs went to die” — an inspiration for the setting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World — Rincón found his country lost to a colossal economic crisis. The national, state-owned company Petroleum of Venezuela (PDVSA) had proposed to finance his excavations, and the IVIC had offered him the position of head of laboratory. Neither of these promises was fulfilled.

Rincón’s research has taken him from the deserts of Colombia and Peru and the Bolivia Plateau to the Antarctic islands. In Venezuela, however, he has experienced a crippling immobility. He hasn’t been able to visit his family in his hometown since 2017 due to the high costs of traveling. Over the past year, Rincón has been forced to repeatedly cancel his plans for an excavation at the same site where he found Richard Parker. His car has four bald tires and bad breaks that need replacing in order to face roads that are extremely dangerous due to poor conditions and threats of carjacking — or worse. Each tire costs around $150. Even if he receives international grants to finance his excavations, the currency-exchange restrictions set by the Venezuelan government would make it practically impossible to bring the money into the country. The vehicles owned by the scientific institute, just like most of its projects, are stalled due to a lack of spare parts and no budget to repair malfunctions. His fieldwork shoes are worn out and falling apart. There’s no way to glue them back together, but he doesn’t have the heart to throw them away.

Rincón illustrates the now normalized scarceness in Venezuela by describing a scene that has become standard practice at the institute. Whenever someone opens a Krazy Glue tube, they announce it out loud for everyone to gather round and bring their broken objects. Someone from the electronic cryomicroscopy department might bring their glasses; someone working on tropical ecology could attempt to save their coffee mug. Rincón might bring something similar or one of his latest contraptions assembled from garbage pieces, such as a camera support or a lamp. Rincón spends his days piecing together fossils, attempting to reconstruct prehistoric creatures and their trajectories just as much as broken everyday things that are irreplaceable and no longer existent in Venezuela.

Skeletons are sticking out among the Venezuelan population. What are the bones of current generations going to say? How can ruin ossify in this way?

One of Rincón’s most recent attempts to go back to Orocual was thwarted by poor health. He was preparing to go on a research trip when his blood pressure suddenly rocketed to 150 bpm. He thought he was having a heart attack. When he learned this wasn’t the case, he was relieved beyond measure, knowing as he did that hospitals in the country endure shortages of basic things like soap and experience blackouts that can disrupt surgeries. Rincón, who suffers from hypertension, is unable to find medicine in Venezuela, where import prohibitions imposed by the government have impeded the possibility to receive medical supplies via courier. Maduro has denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis, and has blocked attempts to bring in aid in the form of food and medical supplies. Though the country has accepted limited aid, Human Rights Watch has said it is “not on the scale necessary to alleviate the current crisis.” The international pressure is currently mounting on the country’s borders, as the opposition seeks to bring in international aid that is condemned by Maduro as an invasion attempt that could pave the way for U.S. military intervention. At the Colombia-Venezuela border, Maduro’s government has barricaded the bridge connecting the two countries with an oil tanker and shipping containers to prevent the delivery of food and medical supplies collected by the United States, Colombia, Canada, and Venezuelans abroad. Clashes between government forces and the population have resulted in at least four civilian deaths, hundreds of injuries, and the burning of several trucks carrying the supplies. In blocking the border, the Venezuelan troops are also looking after their own interests. Under the Maduro administration, the National Guard has greatly profited from food trafficking in the country, which has become a better business than the illegal drug trade, also dominated by the Army. Military power is pervasive in Venezuela and extends to the control of the mining and oil industries — PDVSA is run by a major general — and the distribution of medical supplies, among other things.

On the day of his hypertensive scare, Rincón felt compelled to release on social media an image of the monthly paycheck issued to him by the scientific institute. It reads, after retirement and insurance holds, 1,104,134.64 bolívares. One kilogram of tomatoes costs around that figure in Venezuelan supermarkets. With his post, Rincón wanted to dispel the rumor that he is a millionaire and the suspicion that he’s “plugged” to the government’s privileges. His critics point to his relationship with state-owned PDVSA as evidence of his complicity with the Maduro regime.

At the Orocual tar pit. Photo courtesy of Ascanio Rincón.

Rincón relies on PDVSA to gain access to the tar pit of Orocual. Due to the economic instability of the industry, the oil company has only been able to provide him with three meals a day and accommodation in exchange for acknowledgment and, occasionally, geological intel that might be useful for hydrocarbon exploration. Rincón is regularly informed about any fossil deposits that oil workers find in the field. It is no coincidence that PDVSA’s and Rincón’s paths are intermeshed. Oil and asphalt favor fossil preservation because of the oxygen vacuum they create. There are hundreds of tar pits scattered throughout Venezuela, and countless creatures found their end in these sticky quagmires, yielding fossils up to 2 million years old. The oil seep at Orocual, where PDVSA has several oil fields, is part of the Orinoco Petroleum Belt, one of the largest oil reserves on the planet. This is where the Venezuelan man-beast fell into a deadly crude trap.

Exploring a cave. Photo courtesy of Ascanio Rincón.

Unable to carry out fieldwork at the moment at Orocual, where a plethora of bone fragments still await collection, Rincón has resorted to looking for fossils in Caracas. One of the sites he explored last year was a cave within the city, where he practiced a form of paleontological speleology. As dangerous as venturing inside a cavern with very basic equipment — worn-out boots, a rope, a helmet, a flashlight with few, precious batteries — may seem, for Rincón, the real danger lurks outside the cave, where he has heard shots fired in the nearby neighborhood. For the past few years, Caracas has topped the list of most violent cities in the world, with a murder rate of 111.19 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. “Insile” (insilio in Spanish) is a term that has been circulating to describe the sense of inverted exile or feeling of being a foreigner in one’s own country that is prevalent in the increasingly hostile capital city and in the country at large. A seasoned speleologist habituated to enclosed spaces, Rincón mentions that he was surprised to experience his first panic attack due to claustrophobia inside the cave during one of his excursions.

Feeling trapped in his office, Rincón currently fills his time by working on his next papers about past findings. Poring over a Classical Greek dictionary, he thinks about possible names for his most recent discovery. This is how he named in 2015 another major breakthrough of his career, the femur of a giant sloth, which reads like a line from a haiku or a Homeric epithet.

* * *

Eionaletherium tanycnemius

“The Long-legged Beast That Wanders Through the Beach”

Bones carry the story of the organism to which they belonged, Rincón remarks. He refers to this arrangement of the layers in bones (their osseous stratigraphic sequence) as fingerprints — boneprints — unique to each individual. Through chemical analyses of stable isotopes, he explains, scientists are able to read the specimen’s dietary history by measuring traces of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. Forensic analyses of this kind also throw light on the individual’s age, weight, body mass, metabolic rate, and how much energy they had. Everything is registered in the bone, including the stress and traumas that an individual — or an entire population — has gone through. “From their ‘ontogenetic conservation,’ you can learn what an organism ate at various stages of its life: what it ate when it was young, what it ate in adulthood, and what it ate in its old age,” Rincón says. For instance, we know that these ancient sloths from northeastern Venezuela moved even more slowly than the ones alive today.

Through bones, Rincón examines ontogenesis, the study of the developmental history of an organism or anatomical feature from its earliest stage to maturity. The word has an interesting etymology: ontos-, “to be,” and –geneia, “mode of production.” To define “being” according to a mode of production is especially suggestive in this single-export oil country. With production at its lowest in 30 years, the state-owned oil company faces an exodus of its workforce, unprecedented in the history of the oil industry. Moving backward in time, PDVSA — and, consequently, Venezuela itself — increasingly resembles this slow giant entrapped in its own crude pit.

Eionaletherium (sloth). Photo courtesy of Ascanio Rincón.

When explaining at what point a bone can be considered a fossil, Rincón says, “The chicken you had yesterday — if you managed to find it — could be, in a way, already considered a fossil.” He laughs as he draws an analogy that sounds tragicomic in the face of the food crisis. “Indeed,” he observes, “to find chicken to eat in Venezuela is a fortuitous event. This is, more or less, what happens with fossils. You must be extremely lucky because they’re rare occurrences in nature.”

Somewhat resembling forensic analyses in paleontology, economists have been forced to resort to new indicators in order to grasp the magnitude of a crisis that exceeds traditional metrics. One of the most shocking markers, devised by Ricardo Hausmann at Harvard University, has been the calculation of the number of calories that the minimum wage allows a person to buy, which currently stands at fewer than 900 a day. An average person expends more than 2,000 calories a day. Venezuelans have come up with a term for the generalized weight loss and nutritional deficiency that have resulted from the food crisis: the “Maduro diet.”

Moving backward in time, PDVSA — and, consequently, Venezuela itself — increasingly resembles this slow giant entrapped in its own crude pit.

People are starving in the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. Rincón himself recently stated on social media that he had lost around 10 kilos (22 pounds) because of the food shortage, his weight plummeting to just 64 kilos (141 pounds). His wife and son have grown thinner as well. The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, has identified a malnutrition crisis in Venezuela. A common sight on the streets of Caracas today is that of people going through the garbage seeking food to feed themselves and their families. Particularly shocking is the mounting severe malnourishment in children who, just skin and bones, often die of famine upon reaching the hospital; hundreds of skeletal babies have died of hunger in the emergency rooms in the past two years. The Venezuelan government has censored and kept secret the figures indicating infant mortality rates (a study published in the The Lancet Global Health estimated 21 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016), yet bodies speak for themselves: Skeletons are sticking out among the Venezuelan population. What are the bones of current generations going to say? How can ruin ossify in this way?

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Tachiraptor admirabilis

Rincón’s Admirable Campaign

In 2013, among volcanic rocks composed of tuffs, sandstones, and silt in northwestern Venezuela, Rincón and his team found a tibia and an ischium (the curved bone at the base of the pelvis) that would, once more, mark a watershed in paleontological studies. Dinosaur fossil discoveries are extremely rare in the northern region of South America and the larger Gondwanan landmass to which the continent was attached around 500 million years ago. La Quinta rock formation, which crops out near the border of Colombia, had yielded Venezuela’s first and, until Rincón and his colleagues’ finding, only dinosaur fossil: a herbivorous species named Laquintasaura venezuelae. Their discovery, the Tachiraptor admirabilis, was the first meat-eating dinosaur ever discovered in Venezuela. It immediately captivated the public, generating enthusiasm for Rincón’s work. “People like anything that kills, bites, and draws blood,” Rincón says, laughing. “The Tachiraptor gave me fame — but no fortune, as you can see!”

Rincón describes the discovery as “electrifying,” not least for the historic locality where it was found, La Grita, a strategic point in Simón Bolívar’s Admirable Campaign for Venezuelan independence. In 1813, Bolívar, who remains today South America’s most iconic military hero, set out to end Spanish rule in the western provinces of what is now Venezuela. Two hundred years later, Rincón would conduct his own admirable paleontological campaign and name his finding after the historical milestone. “Tachiraptor” means “thief of Táchira,” the state where the predator’s remains were found. For Rincón, the link to Bolívar’s Admirable Campaign was inevitable, so “admirabilis” immediately had a natural ring to him. Bolívar’s name, however, has heavy political connotations in present-day Venezuela. “I am not a politiquero [a politically motivated person], but we had to acknowledge Bolívar’s Admirable Campaign,” he says. “It was too great a coincidence. It was just obvious.”

That Venezuela has been built around the figure of Bolívar can be inferred from its urban anthropology. The main square of almost every city in the country is named after him. Yet, like the national currency that bears Bolívar’s name, the hero’s image has also been devalued. Today “Bolivarianism” is less identified with the purely historical military and political figure that helped five other Latin American countries attain independence from Spain in the 19th century than with Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Chávez, who became president in 1999, officially changed its name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The populist president fashioned himself and his government’s political image around Bolívar — and vice versa. Bolívar, the heir of an upper-class family in Caracas, was reinvented as a low-income figure of humble origins that echoed those of the young Chávez. History textbooks were rewritten and new legends of the hero-turned-god were broadcast in the president’s four-hour television show.

Yet the most shocking maneuver of the Chavista regime to appropriate the cult of Bolívar was the exhumation of the Liberator’s skeleton in 2010, when the country’s oil economy was already in decline after years of squandered bonanza. To the nation’s shock — the procedure was televised — the removal of the remains was performed at midnight by a team of figures in white suits and masks, all busily bent at work over the skeleton. Two years later, the government displayed an official portrait of Bolívar’s features derived from a study of the exhumed skull. This Bolívar, some pointed out, bore a resemblance to Chávez’s face.

Rincón, who recalls the exhumation as an uncanny episode, dislikes the facial reconstruction carried out by the government, which he considers crude and inexact. For him, the anatomical proportions were blatantly disregarded.

“If I know about something, it’s bones. One can tell if a muscle imprints volume onto the cranium or not,” he said. Rincón criticizes the procedure’s cryptic nature, lack of scientific rigor, and the absence of forensic and physical archeologists.

Rincón strives to hold paleontology in Venezuela to the highest standards. His sternness when tearing apart false discoveries assembled from disparate fossils has earned him enemies in the field. “To undo chimeras or rectify errors is what science is all about,” he says.

In Venezuela, even bones have become politicized. Rincón’s long-departed colleagues baptized their fossil findings in the Urumaco Desert in northwestern Venezuela with the name of Bolívar and other national heroes. In 2006, the team found two giant sloth specimens that they named Bolivartherium, in honor of Bolívar, and Mirandabradys, after Francisco de Miranda, considered the herald of Venezuelan independence. “They wanted to pay homage to Bolívar’s Republic,” says Rincón. “Each person has their own line of thought. I always prefer technical names, or that of a person that was important for paleontology, rather than national heroes. I think there are other spaces for that.”

“The admirabilis was a must, though,” he says. “When you describe a species, you’re the intellectual author of that hypothesis, of that idea, so you’re free to name it whatever the hell you want.”

Resisting a tendency that he considers somewhat propagandistic, Rincón pays homage to very different heroes when naming new species. Because of the recent cancellations of his expedition to the Orocual tar pit in Maturín, Rincón resorted to unearthing the findings of old paleontological collections from the 1972 expedition conducted by a Harvard University team in the same Urumaco region, where oil workers reported the presence of a variety of fossils. Bryant Patterson, the leader of the expedition, had found two giant sloth specimens that were left unexamined after his death. Rincón completed Patterson’s unfinished study and published the results in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology last year.

Rincón named one of these specimens Urumacocnus urbanii, after Franco Urbani, a member of the Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. The other specimen was immortalized under the name Pattersonocnus (“Patterson’s Claw”) diazgameroi, in memory of Patterson and of Venezuelan paleontologist María Lourdes Díaz de Gamero, who left behind her own legacy of significant contributions to the microbiology of the region.

“For me, it was important to bring together the greats of the earth sciences in one scientific work,” he explains. “They’ll go down in history in this way.”

Bone by bone, Rincón slowly reconstructs not just prehistory, but also a past that weighs on present-day Venezuela. While resisting politicized patriotism at home, Rincón also fights a battle abroad against prejudice in the international scientific community that resists the idea of serious, “big league” science being done in Venezuela. Rincón makes sure that the name of his country resonates in scientific publications. He is proud of publishing from Venezuela on Venezuelan specimens. The demonym venezuelensis in Richard Parker’s binomial nomenclature, for instance, bears geographical significance due to the migratory movement that the specific location illuminates. Like many of his contributions, the “Venezuelan man-beast” was purposely named to have an impact on both his peers and the popular imagination of his fellow citizens. “We made him [Richard Parker] Venezuelan because we were marking our territory. In a way, we wanted to say: ‘Yes, we also do paleontology in Venezuela and we publish in the top ten journals of vertebrate paleontology. We made him Venezuelan, with Venezuelan material,” he says. “We just wanted to point out: There’s the product. There it is.”

Abroad, he would be just one more scientist, a displaced paleontologist.

Publishing in the world’s top journals of paleontological studies is as important to Rincón as sharing his findings on social media. He also wants to create his own series on YouTube to make his discoveries accessible to the general public. Rincón’s optimism and efforts have been praised by the media, who hail his decision to stay in Venezuela as heroic.

“I feel that the BBC news article about my story created this sort of heroism around me. I became like something of a symbol of those of us who stayed to endure this disaster. It seems that people felt there was some hope left,” he says. “I certainly don’t feel like a hero. I just do what I love.”

Looking at what lies beyond the horizon in these days of growing uncertainty within Venezuela and in the international community regarding the country’s government, Rincón continues to work and hopes that this dark age will be over soon, and that it will leave a dense deposit of lessons to help piece the country back together. He hopes to be able to pass his passion on to the next generation by founding a paleontology academy in Venezuela someday. But even if a long-awaited political change takes place in Venezuela, time is not on his side. “Things have come to a standstill in Venezuela. Politicians do politics and their time frame is different to that of science,” he says. “If, some distant day, things change and politicians finally realize that paleontology is useful and relevant, it will be too late for me.”

For now, Rincón waits in his office, glancing now and then at Richard Parker’s skull and wondering if he will be able to go back to Orocual this weekend, or perhaps the next. That is, if he finds a car; if PDVSA or the institute provide financial support; if he clears the deadly roads to Maturín; if he finds supplies; if he manages to keep himself and his family afloat in the quagmire of the economic crisis; and if his heart resists the mounting pressures that squeeze him, ever more tightly, between the narrowing horizons of a life and career in Venezuela — a sensation akin to the unprecedented claustrophobia attack he experienced in the cave as he looked for fossils in the dark and the batteries he had managed to find ran out, extinguishing his headlight.

* The claim that Rincón is “the last paleontologist” in the country is contested by a group of Venezuelan paleontologists headed by Dr. Jorge Carrillo-Briceño, based in Zurich, who points out that there are other geologists and biologists/zoologists still in the country (Rodolfo Sánchez, Edwin Chávez-Aponte, and Imerú Alfonso) that have made significant contributions to the field. It is also important to clarify that there are micropaleontologists working in the country today. Yet, Ascanio Rincón remains effectively the only vertebrate paleontologist by degree and profession currently living and working in Venezuela.

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Zoe Valery is a writer pursuing an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories — but cannot resist veering toward nonfiction when she stumbles upon an interesting subject.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler
Copy-editor: Jacob Z. Gross