February 2013: Sharktooth Hill; Kern County, California

Our guide from the Buena Vista Museum gave us the lay of the land. Where we stood, he told us, the fossil bed was inches beneath our feet. He pointed back southwest towards Bakersfield and said that same fossil layer extended there as well, but down about 2500 feet beneath our homes.

In the hillside wall he showed us the line where bones were embedded in a one-foot-thick band. This blanket of fossil-matter is everywhere hereabouts and that’s why every rig that drills for Kern River Crude usually spits out a few sharks’ teeth on its way down. We all picked our spots and started to dig; before long I’d screened my first tooth from a shovelful of earth.

Sixteen million years ago some anomaly in the ocean floor kept the silt moving around this area and never let it settle down amidst the bone bed that collected there. The future site of Bakersfield was then off the coast of that ancient sea and a prime gathering spot for every kind of sea creature and shark, including the now extinct Megalodon that was about the size of a school bus and had teeth as big as your hand.

For 700,000 years, the bones and teeth collected on the ocean floor and remained uncovered in the current. Then, a little over 15 million years ago, something changed. The continental plates shifted, the San Andreas moved northward towards San Francisco and the low coastal mountain ranges began to rise. Eventually, the vertebrae and teeth were covered with silt and lost to time.

Our own species had its early beginnings only two million years ago. All our ‘cousin’ branches were killed off or died out through the ages. The last of them were the Neanderthals, still stomping around Gibraltar less than 30,000 years ago.

So, we’re new. Anthropologists say the last substantial change to our creative/imaginative cognitive functions—which define us as modern humans—happened only 45,000 years ago or so. That’s only one fifteenth of the 700,000 years those bones and teeth collected on that ancient ocean floor beneath us here; all those teeth from sharks that were pretty much perfect sharks for 400 million years before we became imperfect humans.

Digging in that hard-pack old seabed was work. The finds by afternoon seemed few and far between. The perky morning conversation was over. We were alone with the wind and our thoughts and our own little graves before us.

The hills surrounded the site on three sides. Only the vista back towards Bakersfield was open to the afternoon sun. There was a breeze coming down across our diggings from the northward hill but it didn’t make a sound at all. Once in a while we’d all stop digging at the same time and be overawed by the silence. We were far enough from everything to lose all the ambient sound of civilization.

I roamed the edges of Sharktooth Hill with my shovel later just to stretch my legs. I came to a place where it drops off down into a washed-out culvert and a low hill blocked out the sight lines back to our little excavation site. I was finally by myself. I dug into that hill and pulled out more brown bone and yet another whale vertebrae. I looked around in the sun-drenched silence all about me when my shovel came to rest. The wind tried my hat and then all was quiet again. I was alone under a silent sun.

The layer of earth I stood on was at the bottom of that ancient ocean at least 15 million years ago. Everything we were collecting was between 15.2 and 15.9 million years old. Geological changes have pushed up that seabed and the hills all around me but, from my current vantage point back then, how many whales and sharks would have passed over my head? How patiently this layer of dirt collected bone and teeth and the ossified cartilage of countless creatures that swam in those oceans for hundreds of millions of years—just to leave me grasping at time-lines and feeling overwhelmed.

We caravanned out when the sun got low and wove our way back down the spaghetti trails and out thru the oil pumpers sucking the last combustible life out of the ancient ground.

I unloaded my truck into the deep shadow of the garage, dragging my treasures of tooth-encrusted rocks into the darkness of the man-cave entrance. Before I was called to dinner I laid out my collection of Mako teeth on a dark towel atop the washing machine for a photograph. Afterwards I took a long hot bath to relax my aching muscles. Everything was back to normal.

Except that when I walked past the laundry room later that evening, the ancient sharks were smiling at me. Teeth that hadn’t seen the light of day for fifteen million years—until I’d dug them up that morning.

I wondered if, millions of years from now, some new species, just stepping in from the evolutionary on-deck circle, might be digging up those peculiar old human spines from the encrusted loam and find them just as fascinating.

I’ll keep you posted.


Philip Berling is retired and working on a series of novels anchored in Bakersfield.