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Zoe Valery

Baring the Bones of the Lost Country: The Last Paleontologist in Venezuela

Photo courtesy of Ascanio Rincon / Tachiraptor admirabilis illustration by Maurílio Oliveira / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

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.* Read more…