Yemen:A gift from the sea? [Archives:2006/945/Education]

May 11 2006

Dr. Ravisankar S. Nair
Asst Professor (English)
Seiyun Center
Hadramout University

“Great things happen when men and mountains meet” said the legendary English poet William Blake.His words proved to be prophetic for me one day when I climbed the barren and formidable mountains at Al Garn in Seiyun where I live and work. Something great indeed happened that day. From the first moment when I began my lonely climb,I knew that this mountain was very very special. Every pebble,every rock and every huge boulder of the mountain spoke to me, not in the language of the mountains but in the language of the seas.I saw the imprint of an ancient sea;the fury of its waves, the mysterious contours of its abysmal depths, and the myriad forms of life that once teemed its churning waters-all etched so clearly on the rocks. With a shudder I realized that the lofty mountain on which I was perched was once under the deep sea.It slowly dawned on me that the ancient land of Yemen was the gift of the sea- a sea which roared for millions of years and died millions of years ago; and in its death it bequeathed to us this historic land of Yemen.

From my first expedition to Al Garn mountains, I returned with a handful of fossil sea shells.On that day I had amassed many fossil sea shells but the tricky climb down prevented me from bringing them down.I showed the fossils to my colleagues in the University and to my students.Then I understood that a fossil is something that people in Yemen do not comprehend at all.My students were asking me why I was interested in stones.When I told them that those were parts of animals that lived long ,long ago, they looked at me in utter disbelief.I then tried to explain to them what a fossil is.

A fossil is the body or part of the body of a living organism preserved in rock, soil or ice. Usually hard parts like bone, nail, teeth or scales are preserved as fossils.Most of the fossils are found in sedimentary rocks-rocks formed from soil under great pressure. A small animal like a snail, for example, when dead, leaves behind its shell, after the soft body parts are decomposed.The shell made of hard material remains intact in many cases. It may later get covered with soil. Because of geological changes, it may be pushed further and further down. Due to the extreme pressure exerted by the millions of tons of soil in the top layers, the bottom layers may solidify to become sedimentary rocks. The change takes place over a period of millions of years. The shell of the snail also becomes a rock in the process, but it preserves its original shape. This is what is known as a fossil. Animal or plant parts preserved like this give us invaluable records of the past.

The fossils that I collected from my daily trips to the mountains were mostly sea shells like snails, clams ,cones,oysters and conch shells. They are marine animals with soft bodies inside hard shells. By protruding some part of their soft body outside the shell they move and eat. I also collected from the Al garn mountains fossilized sponges , sea cucumbers and a variety of corals. The imprints of sea plants and many other organisms were clearly visible on many rocks on the mountains. I also found a remarkably well-preserved specimen of crab legs, an animal belonging to the family called arthropoda.

What does all this indicate? How can fossils of sea animals appear on a mountain? Scientists believe that mountains were formed when huge plates under the earth moved and collided with each other. At the point of collision massive quantities of soil and rocks were pushed upwards. These became mountains. Thus the mountain ranges in Al Garn were formed from the soil and rocks that were once under the sea. The telltale imprint of the sea comes alive when you look closely at any rock from the mountains of Al Garn. Later I found out that this was true of any mountain in Seiyun and the surrounding areas like Boar, Taribah and Tarim; and I am now convinced that same is the case with almost all mountain ranges in Yemen.

Experts in this field can determine the age of these fossils using techniques like carbon dating or spectroscopy. Some fossils of animals known to have become extinct during a particular age will also help to date these specimens. To me, one point looks significant now. I have so far not been able to find any fossil of fishes; bones or scales of fish are also usually well preserved. May be a more diligent and extensive search will bring up fish fossils. But if there are no fish fossil it actually means that the specimens are from a time before fishes appeared on earth. That means at least 350 million years! I used to flout the experience of my 43 years of life to my young students. Now when I hold in my hand an animal which lived 350 million years ago, my ego is deflated pretty quickly.

The implications of this hidden treasure for Yemen are many. The government of Yemen, the local governments and the Universities in Yemen can do a lot to tap this rich resource in many ways.The greatest significance of this is that it opens up a vast area for exploration by scientists all over the world. An extensive study of the fossils of Yemen is sure to expand our knowledge of the geological prehistory and evolution of life. Governments and universities should think of long term projects in collaboration with universities abroad. Universities may strengthen geological and palaentological studies. A team of experts may be trained in fossil studies and put in charge of scientific studies in this area. The tourism potential of such places may also be explored.Fossil museums and fossil parks would attract many tourists. And finally, fossils can also be sold ! On the fossil sites in the internet, advertisements from fossil sellers can be seen in plenty. For even a small piece of fossil, the price quoted is 10 to 15 dollars. The Yemen Government can also think along these lines.I hope to see in near future tourists clamoring to buy the fossil momentos of Yemen. For me, climbing the mountains of Yemen, searching for fossils and finding some very beautiful specimens has itself been an experience of a life time.These mountains now instill in me a deep reverence. They are not barren lonely and formidable anymore.They speak to me the mysterious language of a bygone era-and I listen in rapt attention.