National Geographic : 2010 Oct
• town of Margaret River, about a four-hour drive south of Perth. Hatcher made one of the most signi cant fossil nds in recent years at Margaret River. In 1992 he decided to explore the aptly named Tight Entrance Cave. Hatcher took the path o en used by spelunkers and found him- self working his way right through a bunch of fossils. " is is an extinct kangaroo everyone is walking on," he told his friends. A hole in the oor of the cave turned out to be the eye socket of a huge kangaroo. More than 10,000 mega- fauna bones have since been hauled from Tight Entrance Cave. Sometimes the bone hunters y ultralights over the vast wasteland known as the Nullar- bor Plain, the treeless underbelly of Australia along the Southern Ocean, and use GPS to map the locations of cave entrances they see from the air. Hun- dreds of caves have been found recently in the Nullarbor, and four in particular have produced abundant megafauna bones. Hatcher has also found caves with primitive boomerangs that he believes were used for hunting bats. But again, megafauna and humans aren't found in the same places---except in a tantalizing few. Mammoth Cave has become a popular tourist destination near Margaret River. Between 1909 and 1915 the cave sediments that contained fossils were hauled out and examined in a hap- hazard manner that no scientist today would approve. ("They took the jewels, basically," Hatcher said.) Still, one bone in particular has drawn exten- sive attention: a femur with a notch in it. ere's a replica of the bone on display at Mammoth Cave. Hatcher thinks the bone was notched by a sharp tool. When he looks at Mammoth Cave, he sees an obvious human habitat, a great shelter during the Ice Age. "Beautiful place for people to live. Shel- tered. Permanent source of water in those days. ere's plenty of bush tucker," Hatcher said as we discovered. It's a wide hole in the ground, a curving vertical sha through a limestone hill, covered with a metal grate. " is is a sacred site in Australian paleontol- ogy," Augee said. 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. e protrusion turned out to be a bone. A surveyor named omas Mitchell arrived later that year, explored the caves in the area, and shipped fossils o to Richard Owen, the British paleontologist who later gained fame for reveal- ing the existence of dinosaurs. Owen recognized that the Wellington bones belonged to extinct marsupials. I asked Augee what he thinks hap- pened 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. ings wash into caves. Water reworks sediments. Young, heavy things sink into the older layers. e earth is trickier than you think. a key point about her sci- enti c data---there's not enough of it, not enough searching for the encoded narratives of the past. " ere 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 nding the megafauna bones. Lindsay Hatcher is one of them. Hatcher is an easygoing fellow I met near the IF WE FIND EVIDENCE THAT HUMANS AND MEGAFAUNA LIVED SIDE BY SIDE FOR MANY THOUSANDS OF YEARS, THE ROLE OF HUMANS IN THE EXTINCTIONS IS BLURRY AT BEST.