Published: August 2010

Whale Evolution

valley of the whales

Valley of the Whales

An Egyptian desert, once an ocean, holds the secret to one of evolution’s most remarkable transformations.

By Tom Mueller
Photograph by Richard Barnes

Thirty-seven million years ago, in the waters of the prehistoric Tethys Ocean, a sinuous, 50-foot-long beast with gaping jaws and jagged teeth died and sank to the seafloor.

Over thousands of millennia a mantle of sediment built up over its bones. The sea receded, and as the former seabed became a desert, the wind began to plane away the sandstone and shale above the bones. Slowly the world changed. Shifts in the Earth's crust pushed India into Asia, heaving up the Himalaya. In Africa, the first human ancestors stood up on their hind legs to walk. The pharaohs built their pyramids. Rome rose, Rome fell. And all the while the wind continued its patient excavation. Then one day Philip Gingerich showed up to finish the job.

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