email a friend iconprinter friendly iconExtinct Megafauna
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Here's why: In 1830 a local official named George Rankin lowered himself into the cave on a rope tied to a protrusion in the cave wall. The protrusion turned out to be a bone.

A surveyor named Thomas Mitchell arrived later that year, explored the caves in the area, and shipped fossils off to Richard Owen, the British paleontologist who later gained fame for revealing the existence of dinosaurs. Owen recognized that the Wellington bones belonged to extinct marsupials. I asked Augee what he thinks happened to the megafauna.

"I believe 100 percent in Tim Flannery's model," he said.

Field raised an eyebrow.

"But it's a cave," Augee added. "You can't trust charcoal to give you good dates in caves."

True. Things wash into caves. Water reworks sediments. Young, heavy things sink into the older layers. The earth is trickier than you think.

Judith Field makes a key point about her scientific data—there's not enough of it, not enough searching for the encoded narratives of the past.

"There are about 200 late Pleistocene sites in Australia," Field says. "Dates from fewer than 20 of these are accepted. What you're looking at is an incredibly thin data set from which these elaborate explanatory models are constructed."

Fortunately, there are bone hunters all over the continent. Amateur paleontologists play a crucial role in finding the megafauna bones. Lindsay Hatcher is one of them.

Hatcher is an easygoing fellow I met near the town of Margaret River, about a four-hour drive south of Perth. Hatcher made one of the most significant fossil finds in recent years at Margaret River. In 1992 he decided to explore the aptly named Tight Entrance Cave. Hatcher took the path often used by spelunkers and found himself working his way right through a bunch of fossils. "This is an extinct kangaroo everyone is walking on," he told his friends. A hole in the floor of the cave turned out to be the eye socket of a huge kangaroo. More than 10,000 megafauna bones have since been hauled from Tight Entrance Cave.

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