The history of the most famous dinosaur fossils offers several lessons for DEIA issues in Geosciences
(Cover Image Credit: Evolutionnumber9 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)
On a hot dusty day in northern South Dakota, a team of paleontologists and volunteers had just excavated an Edmontosaurus fossil and were preparing to head back to their camp for the evening. Their vehicle, however, had a flat tire. While waiting for the tire to get repaired, volunteer and self-described explorer Sue Hendrickson noticed flecks of bone poking out of the outcrop as she traipsed across the cliff base.1
The bones she found were part of the largest, most complete remains of Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered.
The discovery of the T. rex, later named after Hendrickson, changed how we saw these large prehistoric beasts. The years and decades that followed the discovery of the dino named “Sue” highlight a key issue of geology and paleontology: the colonial and exploitive nature of the science.
Sue’s discovery soon became the focal point of a key issue: who owns a fossil? And, what if the fossil is discovered on land owned, either currently or in the past, by Native Americans?
Sue is one of the world’s most famous skeletons of Tyrannosaurs rex ever discovered. It is around 40 ft (12 m) long, and 13 ft (4 m) tall at the hip. The skull of this prehistoric beast alone weighs 600 lbs (272 kg)! It is believed the skeleton was deposited in an ephemeral stream which disarticulated the bones but covered them in mud which protected the carcass from scavengers. Despite the name, we aren’t exactly sure what Sue’s gender was (the clever Twitter page the Chicago Field Museum runs for Sue suggests preferred pronouns of they/theirs.”)2,3
Sue’s skeleton is also unique for it’s many pathologies.3 Sue was injured several times, possibly as a result of struggles with prey. The injuries conjure up famous paintings of large T. rex battling Triceratops in a kind of Ray Harryhausenesque epic. The fossil is riddled with disease, including an infection that is common in modern bird species.4
Sue’s post-discovery history involved legal disputes, native American tribal rights, and an FBI raid. When Sue Hendrickson discovered the large Tyrannosaur, she and her team found it on the land of Maurice Williams, who is a Lakota tribe member. Williams claimed he only provided the fossil dig team, led by the Black Hills Institute, access to the site, but had not allowed the team to remove the fossil.1,5
Part of William’s claims relate to longstanding issues of Native American land rights. There is a long history of geologists and paleontologists taking rocks, fossils, minerals, and artifacts from Native American lands without compensation. Most of the field work we do is carried out out on previously native land held by the US government.
The FBI raided the storage facility where Sue was being kept and seized the fossil while the court case was being settled.5 The courts eventually agreed with Williams: Sue was owned by Williams because the fossil waas found on Lakota land. Williams sold the fossil at auction for several million dollars to the Chicago Field Museum where the bones rest today.2
The interesting history of this single dinosaur highlights so many issues related to inclusion, equity, and cultural awareness, especially with regards to the intersection of geoscience and Native American rights. Sadly, I don’t have the time to thoroughly discuss this important topic, but I would love to sometime in the future.
In the meantime, I ask that all who read this be mindful of taking fossils and rocks from land owned by Native Americans. Try to include input of the people who own the land when you do your science, and be mindful of the many people who were pushed off of their land so that you now have access to it.
We can all learn to be more culturally mindful from an old dinosaur named Sue.
- Fiffer, S. (2001). Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of Largest, Most Fought Over T. Rex Ever Found. Macmillan.
- Miller, P. R. (2001). A Dinosaur Named Sue. The Story of the Colossal Fossil. Childhood Education, 77(4), 241.
- Wolff, E. D., Salisbury, S. W., Horner, J. R., & Varricchio, D. J. (2009). Common avian infection plagued the tyrant dinosaurs. PLoS One, 4(9), e7288.
- Cataldo, Rosie: Digging for dollars Archived February 12, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, Retrieved on April 9, 2007 (from Wikipedia)