Elsa Panciroli, Popularising Palaeontology Workshop, 2018

There are few arenas where Brontosaurus, ‘awesome-bro’ palaeoart, and Dutch missionaries are topical bedfellows. What could possibly unite the last British bear to Belgian Iguanodons, or move conversation smoothly between ‘plant blindness’ and Neanderthals? It can only be the fourth Popularising Palaeontology Workshop.

Popularising Palaeontology, or PopPalaeo, was held in London just before Christmas. The purpose of the workshops - which have been running since 2016 - is to explore themes around palaeontology and its role in culture, such as depictions in art, film and literature. Attendees come from a truly multidisciplinary spectrum including historians, archaeologists, artists, scientists, journalists – and those who wear more than one of these hats at a time. I got so much from participating in the first workshop, I was excited to get stuck in to this latest event.

The overarching theme for this workshop was Debates and Issues. On the first day, our opening session by Paul Brinkman was on the strong personalities of antagonistic palaeontologists in the late 1800s in the United States. This revolved around the famous squabbles between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Brinkman told us about Henry Fairfield Osborn collecting ‘Marshiana’: a term coined by his mentor Cope to describe the letters, notes and other evidence collected against Marsh. Quite quickly, Osbore realised “collecting data on the foibles of my rivals is a good move” said Brinkman. We wondered as a group about the role of unpleasant personalities in the history (and the present) of palaeontology, as Brinkman declared that Cope, Marsh and Osborn were, to be honest, all “massive jerks”. But would we still be talking about them if they weren’t?

Hannah O’Regan explored how long wild bears persisted in the UK. She outlined the evidence from scant bones, and coupled this with our understanding of the survivability of isolated populations, calculated using a programme called VORTEX. The evidence suggests to her that bears probably died out by the early Bronze Age, and later reintroductions by the Romans explain the scattered bear bones found in later time periods, which are all from sites associated with humans. A line of support for this, is the lack of bears in old place-names. Wolves on the other hand, are incorporated into local names, and we know they persisted for much longer. This is an interesting example of the impact of the disappearance of animals on human culture and language.

With this thought fresh in our minds, we heard about Lost Species Day from Matt Stanfield. Held on November the 30th each year, it is an opportunity to honour the many animals already extinct through human activity. Stanfield talked about the emotional, personal connection that people form with these lost creatures, particularly after creating artwork of them. The process of creation and desire for accuracy forces the artist to take a much closer look at these animals than many of us usually would.

After coffee it was my turn to talk – and it will come as no surprise that Mesozoic mammals (#MesozoicMammals) were a strong thread throughout the presentation. But what I was really interested in discussing was how we still talk in outdated progressionist terms about evolution, despite our increasing scientific literacy. We also focus on the big, often carnivorous animals as examples of ‘advancement’ and ‘success’ in evolution - but what do we really mean by ‘success’? The term is problematic both in meaning and application, and rarely corresponds to the biological definition of the word. Despite the undoubted success of things like small mammals, herps and insects, we rarely ever discuss those groups in those terms.

To round off the first day’s presentations, Hanneke Meijer told us the story of the ‘man who didn’t dig deep enough’; a Dutch missionary named Theodor Verhoeven who carried out excavations in Indonesia in the 1950-60s, including in the cave that in 2013 yielded the skull of the new species of hominin, Homo floresiensis (aka ‘Flores Man’ or ‘the Hobbit’). He discovered many bones and even published his findings, yet his legacy is considered a failure. We attach great value to the hominin discovery that we don’t give to other finds, however diligently collected or well-intentioned. This led to a fascinating discussion about how we assign value to some fossils over others, based on science, culture, and personal values.

That evening there was a public event asking the question: ‘What is the point of palaeontology?’ Hoping that we wouldn’t be expected to have an answer (but we were), I joined colleagues Becky Wragg-Sykes, Darren Naish and Mark Witton on a panel with lively Q and A from the public. In an adjacent room, old and new palaeoart was on display, addressing themes such as historical depictions of extinct animals, and whether palaeoart is successful when following an art-first approach. But most crucially: there was also free wine, which made everyone very happy.

It was a delight to hear PopPalaeo’s first botanical-themed talk: Plant Blindness and the Fossil Record. Presented by palaeobotanist (and former fellow Guardian science blogger) Susannah Lydon, this presentation touched on a subject too-often overlooked in discussions about representations of extinct life in art and culture: where are all the plants? From large extinct herbivores depicted standing on barren brown plains, to wishy-washy green backdrops that say nothing about the true undergrowth of the past, plants are treated merely as stage settings for a dinosaur theatre. Placed in the context of young people’s decreasing nature-literacy, it comes as a disappointment but not a surprise that most children barely recognise plants as living things, let alone being able to identify them. We all lamented the lack of good palaeobotanical reconstructions, which impacts the ability to produce good palaeoart. This has the repercussion of diminishing our view of extinct ecosystems, and our understanding of the natural world in deep time. “Plants are never going to be at the forefront,” Lydon admitted, “that’s okay, but I just want them to be fairly represented!”

From something under-represented in art and culture, to something people just can’t get enough of: Neanderthals. This lost branch of humanity not only lived alongside our own genus, Homo, but DNA shows us they are the ancestors of many of us. But as Becky Wragg-Sykes points out, the actual science of the Neanderthal is often overshadowed by the deep-seated fascination they hold for the public. They unfairly remain a cultural shorthand for the primitive and stupid. The media leaps on any new research about Neanderthals, and simultaneously perpetuates these old stereotypes. Wragg-Sykes took us through a wonderful series of palaeoartistic reconstructions, reflecting our changing understanding (and prejudices) about these hominins through time. She reflected that our fascination with them is like the fascination with aliens: Neanderthals are historically our first-contact with an alien being, a humanoid but not quite human, the ‘other’.

For some time we tried not to mention the sauropod in the room, ‘that Spielberg Hollywood film’. Inevitably, Jurassic Park featured often in discussions, to many people’s chagrin. This also raised an interesting question: what is it about JP that means we always end up talking about it? It’s hard to deny that the film was a pivotal point, not only for the story of palaeontology and culture, but for palaeontologists and those who work in connection with that discipline. We only have to look at the level of enthusiastic gushing that took place among palaeontologists during the recent twenty-five year anniversary. Some of the participants at PopPalaeo argued we should try not to talk about it so much, believing its role in our discipline has been massively overplayed.

The next two talks of the workshop were on ‘Dinosaurs and their uses’, and it was interesting to reflect that in two days of presentations, these were the first dedicated to that stereotype symbolic animal of palaeontology. In the first, Shana Van Hauwermeiren surprised us with the extensive role of Iguanadon in the history of Belgium in the 1800s and early 20th Century. “You could recreate the history of Belgium [at this time] using only articles that contain the word ‘Iguanodon’” she told us. They permeated politics, language, contemporary popular culture and science from this period. Yet, astonishingly, their role in Belgium’s past is virtually unknown in the country today.

Will Tattersdill shifted our focus to the Brontosaurus: an animal that existed, then didn’t, then did again, as science changed its mind about its validity. He reflected on the sense of loss we feel for the dinosaurs of our childhood; science is changing them – adding feathers, altering posture and behaviour, bringing them to life then poofing them out again like candle flames. Each time we revisit our beloved childhood dinosaurs and find them gone, he argues, it is an experience analogous to a fresh ‘extinction’.

In the final two talks we tackled the monstrous in palaeoart. First, the chimeric reconstructions made of synapsids, the line of animals that includes mammals. Ilya Nieuwland shared the attempts at interpreting ‘Naosaurus’ (now correctly identified and reconstructed as Edaphosaurus), a Permian animal related to Dimetrodon that also had ‘sail’ structure on its back formed from the extended spines of the vertebrae.

We went from honest attempts to reconstruct animals that mistakenly made them monstrous, to deliberately making monsters by augmenting an animal’s ferocity beyond the data their fossils provide. Mark Witton polished off the talks by discussing the phenomenon of turning extinct animals into terrifying angry monsters – completely at odds with our understanding of real animals and their behaviour in the natural world. He shared three powerpoint slides depicting a furious toothy montage of T. rex and friends screaming from the cover of almost every book on dinosaurs and extinct animals on the shelves today. Why are we so obsessed with turning extinct creatures into monsters? Is it really about the animals, or more about the role of monsters in human culture?

Witton’s talk brought us into lively discussion about what extinct animals mean to us. Why does it matter how they are depicted? As a scientist, my gut reaction is that accuracy matters. Certainly one of the most concerning reasons is that these depictions reflect the growing gaps in our understanding of the natural world, today and in the past. Fewer and fewer people know how animals behave in nature, and the roles they play in an integrated ecosystem. If dinosaurs are scary monsters, we can be glad they’re gone. This lessens the reality and impact of our current extinction crisis, because culturally the extinct is monstrous, and is therefore already unreal to us.

We levelled the responsibility of helping change depictions of extinct animals at scientists and artists, recognising that trying to persuade advertisers and Hollywood to do it was a somewhat lost cause – or at least, approaching the problem from the wrong direction. While we can never remove all prehistoric ‘monsters’ – nor should we want to – we can make sure that there are plenty of images and information that depict extinct creatures and their habitats in an informed, scientifically up-to-date way, and that they are available to the public and media.

As a scientist, I have access to one kind of ‘truth’ about the past. Although I place great value on it, it is not the only ‘truth’ that matters. The role of vanished animals in human culture is ingrained and multi-faceted. Fossil species will exist, and then cease, like the Brontosaurus. But one thing we know for sure is that their meaning to us as creatures of science, history, and popular culture, will never become extinct.