El Salvadoran Paleontology

Date: 2001
Owner: Wikimedia
Source Type: Images


In 2000, an El Salvadoran handyman stumbled upon some large teeth embedded in the compacted clay near the Rio Tomayate and, realizing these were not everyday molars, sent them to the Museo de Historia Natural de El Salvador. By 2001, the museum had begun excavating the site and was amazed to discover the largest deposit of early-middle Pleistocene vertebrate fossils ever found in Central America. The site, which became a national monument in 2002, has yielded at least seventeen different taxa of vertebrates, including ancient turtles, horses, llamas, glyptodonts, and the world's only fossil record of the species Crocodylus Acutus. Laser-Argon tests suggest that the bones are at least 8 million years old, a significant discovery because, prior to this find, paleontologists had considered the Central American land bridge to be almost 6 million years younger.

Central America is a bottleneck between North and South America in which the fauna of each have long collided. Paleontologist Juan Carlos Cisneros noted that Central America was critical to the Great American Faunal Interchange, the movement of animals from south to north and vice versa that produced novel environmental conditions that often favored novel genetic adaptations, the key to Darwinian evolution.

Despite the long-known promise of Central American paleontology, little work was done in this area prior to the Rio Tomayate discovery. This is due in large part to the ongoing civil wars and instability of this region, as well as the lush vegetation that makes discoveries difficult. Yet it also reflects the lack of scientific institutions and infrastructure that have long plagued countries on the peripheries of science like El Salvador. Poor states with economies based on mono-crop agriculture have struggled to develop the applied sciences (like engineering) while the less useful sciences, like paleontology, have had almost no support. Nevertheless, important discoveries like the vertebrate fossils at Tomayate can directly stimulate massive scientific and national interest, much like the nineteenth century discoveries of fossils in Argentina did for paleontology and natural history museums in that country.

Reference: Cisneros, Juan Carlos. "New Pleistocene Vertebrate Fauna from El Salvador." In Revista Brasiliera de Paleontologia, vol. 8, no. 3 (2005), 239-255.