AMNH PALEONTOLOGICAL SURVEYS IN YEMEN, 1988 AND 1991
The Sanaa that greeted us in May, 1988
Ian Tattersall, American Museum of Natural History
When a paleontologist becomes interested in the fossil possibilities offered by a remote and unknown country, what does he or she do? In the case of a group based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and intrigued by the paleontological potential they saw in the United States Geological Survey map of the Yemen Arab Republic, the answer was to turn to the American Institute of Yemeni Studies. Directly across the Red Sea from Ethiopia and Eritrea, northern Yemen is in many ways a geological mirror-image of those fossil-rich countries; and although it sadly lacks any equivalent of the famous Afar Triangle in which many of Ethiopia’s and all of Eritrea’s most famous fossils have been found, our preliminary review of the USGS map suggested that the largely unexplored fossil potential of Yemen was well worth looking into.
Accordingly, in 1987 Ian Tattersall, a curator in the AMNH’s Department of Anthropology, contacted Jon Mandaville, then the AIYS President. Jon was enormously helpful and encouraging, and put us in touch with Jeff Meissner, then Resident Director of AIYS in Sana’a. AIYS was already well established as the principal English-speaking center of research in history, archaeology and the humanities in Sana’a, but it had never welcomed geologists before. Jeff had the excellent idea of not putting us in touch with the Antiquities authorities with whom he customarily dealt, but instead with the Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). This was a brilliant decision, since the MOMR proved not only to be very supportive of our paleontological objectives, but also had the authority to issue us permits to prospect the entire Yemen Arab Republic for fossils.
With funding from the National Geographic Society in hand, the AIYS Center in Sanaa as a base, and preliminary research permission from the MOMR granted, an AMNH team travelled to Sanaa at the end of May, 1988, and remained until the middle of July. The group consisted of Ian Tattersall, Mike Novacek, then a Curator in the AMNH’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, now AMNH Provost, and Maurice Grolier, a geologist who had worked on the USGS geological map of Yemen – and who had also chosen the spot for the first manned lunar landing. Jeff Meissner joined us for some of our explorations, and we also benefited greatly from the advice of Dr Hamel El-Nakhal of the Geology Department of the University of Sana’a. AIYS provided the field vehicle as well as an essential center of operations, and we remain particularly grateful to His Excellency Ali Gabr Alawi, Deputy Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, for his understanding of and support for our goals.
Maurice Grolier (l) and Ian Tattersall on the roof of the AIYS Sanaa building, 1988