Ian Tattersall on AIYS


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.

ian2Maurice Grolier (l) and Ian Tattersall on the roof of the AIYS Sanaa building, 1988

During  six weeks of exploration our group covered some 4,000 miles on mostly very poor or nonexistent roads and examined over 100 potential fossil localities in almost all parts of the YAR.  Sadly, the results were less bountiful than we might have wished.  Some traces of fish bone were collected from freshwater Oligocene deposits interbedded in the Yemen Volcanics at Jabal Matran, south of Tai’zz, and traces of fossil wood were found at this locality and in interbeds elsewhere, notably near the summit of Jabal an Nabi Shu’ayb, the highest point in the Arabian Peninsula.  Only at one locality, a quarry near the village of Khulaqah below the base of the late Cretaceous Tawilah Formation, did we collect significant vertebrate fossils: well-preserved lacustrine fish of ichthyodectiform affinity that were ultimately identified by our AMNH colleague John Maisey.

    prospect   Prospecting in the outcrops at Jabal Matran

Although disappointingly unproductive of fossils, our 1988 explorations were not uneventful.  Consider this extract from Mike Novacek’s engaging memoir, Time Traveler, describing a night-time event in the far north near Jabal Marah early in our wanderings:

“Meester Ian, Meester Mike, these are veeery bad men, they will keel us,” was Ali’s warning call.  Ali was our sentry, our Yemeni escort from the Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources … then I saw several heavily armed men jump out of the jeep and come stalking toward us.  One surly fellow pointed his Soviet-built rifle at my head and started speaking … Jeff Meissner composed a translation of the fellow’s message … “This officer commands a patrol of the North Yemen border militia.  He says that this is a very dangerous area – full of anarchists, gunrunners, smugglers, and hijackers … he forcefully ‘invites’ us to sleep at his army checkpoint.”

We duly proceeded to the checkpoint, and once there the commander attempted to relieve us of our passports while his henchmen took the keys to the AIYS Land Cruiser.  Things were looking very ugly.  The ensuing night of fitful sleep was, fortunately, followed by an unanticipated sudden liberation – possibly due to our letter from the MOMR having been verified – with an admonition never to return.

Prospecting (in vain) in the north

We might have learned from this incident, but as time passed unrewarded by fossils we became a little desperate.  Finally, it appeared that our only good geological hopes lay in the Wadi al-Jawf, the “empty quarter” in the east that lay beyond government control.  Jeff was dubious about risking the AIYS vehicle in this lawless territory, but eventually conceded to our pleas on the wise condition (for us) that he accompany us once more.

The Jawf turned out to be an attractive region where people lived and worked in forced-mud buildings that appeared as if from the beginning of time.  Within them the rooms were unadorned by Presidential portraits, and among them strolled bare-headed women in colorful knee-length dresses.  The local people were definitely calling the shots here, and to a superficial observer the scene had a laid-back air about it.  But all was not exactly easygoing.  Cut back to Time Traveler, describing an episode that began as we were fruitlessly and despondently looking for vertebrate fossils in a road cut, and a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon.  The dust soon resolved into a convoy of Land Cruisers, bristling with heavily-armed men, that promptly surrounded us:

The man in the driver’s seat got out and walked purposefully toward me.  He stopped within inches of my face and gave me a grimace and an interminable study.

“Where are you from?” he asked in perfect English, to my amazement.

“New York,” I said.

“Pleased to meet you.  I’m from Detroit.”

The man explained that he had labored on the production lines of General Motors, made enough money, and had then returned to the Jawf to be the feudal lieutenant of the local sheikh.  Somewhat ominously he continued, “the sheikh wishes to invite you to tea.”

Knowing the reputation of the Jawf for kidnappings and disappearances, our hearts sank into our boots.  But we knew this was not an offer we could refuse.  We joined the convoy and drove off into the desert, where our ultimately destination turned out to be an isolated but elegant building that was still under construction.

Mansion in the Wadi Jawf

As we entered the newly painted mafraj, the Land Cruiser crew threw their weapons on to a large and growing pile in the middle of the floor and settled on cushions along the side.  The sheikh began to adjudicate disputes among his subjects, and large quantities of qat were passed around.  We were evidently in for the long chew, although we had no way of knowing how permanent the sheikh’s hospitality was going to be.

In the end, the occasion was a convivial one, and the young sheikh proved to be highly personable, casually remarking to us (as translated by Jeff) that his family had sacked Sanaa twice, most recently in 1948.  As the evening light started to fade and we were beginning to wonder what lay ahead for us, we were graciously ushered on our way, with an invitation to return any time under the sheikh’s protection.  Never have I so bitterly regretted not having found a good fossil site.  Even the sheikh appeared a little wistful, saying, as Mike recalls in his memoir: “I’m sorry we have too much oil and gold and not enough bones.”

This encounter ended the last major foray of our first exploration of Yemen, and to our great disappointment what we had found had not justified coming back.  But a couple of years later we learned through Dr El-Nakhal that the impressions of fossil frogs had been found at Ar Rhyashia, near Rada’, and we were also informed by Scott Rolston, who took over as AIYS Sanaa Resident Director in 1989, that he had discovered part of a dinosaur skeleton near the main road north from Sanaa, just south of Sa’da.  What is more, northern and southern Yemen had been reunified in the interim, making it possible for the first time to prospect in what had been the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.  It thus seemed worthwhile to try again, and the National Geographic Society bravely and imaginatively agreed to fund the attempt.

Accordingly, and again with the indispensable help of the AIYS and authorization from MOMR, a second field season in the newly unified Republic of Yemen was organized in the fall of 1991.  Mike Novacek and Maurice Grolier being unavailable this time around, the field team consisted, in addition to the AMNH’s Ian Tattersall, of the vertebrate paleontologists James Clark of George Washington University, and Peter Whybrow of the British Museum (Natural History) in London.

James Clark and Yemeni colleagues on the frog-bearing outcrop at Ar Rhyashiya.

Our attempts to relocate Scott Rolston’s dinosaur site were not rewarded with success, but despite some stressful circumstances (see below) our visit to Ar Rhyashiaya led to the collection of numerous remarkably well-preserved fossil frog skeleton impressions of probably late Oligocene age.  Amy Henrici of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and Ana Maria Baez of the University of Buenos Aires, subsequently described these skeletons as members of a new species of the genus Xenopus, X. arabiensis, and as the first occurrence of the genus in Arabia, subsequent to which the genus had become extinct on the peninsula.

Slab from Ar Rhyashiya with fossil frog skeleton of the species Xenopus arabiensis.

Two areas in southern Yemen were also identified as promising.  The first of these was at Zulma Ba-Thalab, north of the road between Aden and Mukallah (see map), where we found a partial skeleton of a late Jurassic teleosaurid thalattosuchian crocodile.  Estimated at about 160 million years old, this was the oldest vertebrate fossil yet known from Arabia.  Unfortunately, this fossil was found in a slab that had fallen from high on a tall cliff face, so the deposits concerned could not be prospected at the time.

outcropPart of the slab containing the thalattosuchian crocodilian from Zulma Ba-Thalab.

The second promising area was a series of Paleocene localities in the Habshiyah Formation that were exposed in a series of depressions lying perpendicular to the shoreline in the Hadhramawt and Shabwa Governorates, both to the east and to the west of Mukallah.  Vertebrate fossils recovered included various fish elements, some dugong ribs and a scapula, and a cetacean rib, and were accompanied by the first fossil flora known from southern Yemen.   This flora included internal casts of a magnolid fruit cf. Anona, and fruits tentatively identified as belonging to the cucumber and waterlily families, plus abundant fossil wood.  Together, the plant, vertebrate and invertebrate fossils discovered suggest that the facies of the Habshiyah Formation involved was deposited in a near-shore marine environment that interfaced with an onshore tropical rainforest via a marshy and lagoonal shoreline.  This setting resembles that inferred for mammal teeth recovered from the late Eocene of southwestern Oman, and is also equivalent in both time and paleoecology to the renowned Eocene-Oligocene Fayum fauna and flora of Egypt.

Localities visited during second field season, 1991

Jim Clark has kindly provided the following personal account of our prospections during the 1991 expedition:

I had the great pleasure of traveling to Yemen with Ian Tattersall and Peter Whybrow from September 29 to October 19, 1991, in search of fossil vertebrates, a trip recounted in Peter’s chapter in the book he edited, Travels with the Fossil Hunters.  The north and south had only recently been united, and Ian was taking the opportunity to search for fossil human remains, hoping that fossil beds similar to those in Ethiopia that produced “Lucy” were present somewhere in the country.

Peter, from the Natural History Museum in London, was involved because he had found primate fossils in Saudi Arabia, and I was a “hired gun” fossil hunter who usually collected dinosaurs; Mike Novacek had recommended me to Ian after our work together in Mongolia earlier that year, when Mike could not make what would have been his second trip to Yemen.

We were hosted in Saana by the AIYS, which I remember being in a beautiful old building from which my jet lag allowed me to view sunrise over the city.  Scott Rolston of the AIYS had found some fossils of what he thought were dinosaurs in the 1980s, and one of our trips was an attempt to try to find his locality.  Unfortunately, either his notes or the kilometer signage along the highway were faulty, so we failed to find his site. We were more fortunate in collecting fossil frogs from a locality south of Sanaa, although as Peter describes in his chapter we were less fortunate in being interrogated by local people and essentially held at gunpoint until we paid them a fee for collecting the fossils.

We continued on to the south but never found the fossil humans Ian was hoping for, although we did find some bones of a fossil crocodilian that at that time was the oldest terrestrial vertebrate fossil from Arabia.  We had a wonderful stop in Aden which delighted Ian, who grew up in Uganda and was transfixed by the charms of the decayed remnants of the British empire.

I have many memories of the trip – the amazingly reckless driving, the ubiquity of qat and AK47s, our valiant but ultimately futile attempt to find alcohol to drink and acetone to mix our glue in, the great hospitality at the AIYS without which we would have been unable to work, the amazing architecture everywhere we looked, and the beautiful countryside.

I wish the AIYS all the best on its 40th anniversary, it was there for us when we needed it.

Instructions to guests in our Aden hotel

Our prospections along the shoreline of southern Yemen indicated that the onshore and near-shore Tertiary deposits became thicker and better-exposed as one moved northeast toward the frontier with Oman; and indeed, in Oman itself similar deposits have yielded vertebrate fossils that are comparable with those in Egypt’s legendary Eocene-Oligocene Fayum deposits.  On this basis, we predict that the best prospects Yemen offers for significant Tertiary vertebrate fossil finds lie in the area between Ash Shihr and the Omani border (see map).  This is an extremely remote area that we were not equipped to explore in 1991, but that clearly merits future prospection when conditions permit.

We hope that our various accounts make clear how rewarding personally all the participants in the two AMNH expeditions to Yemen found the experience, even though the scientific results were not what one might ideally have wished.  Our prospections were made possible only through the active support and participation of the AIYS, and its active intercession on our behalf with the Yemeni authorities.  AIYS is a nimble organization, able to react rapidly to circumstances as they arise, and able spontaneously to take an imaginative chance, as Jeff Meissner certainly did on more than one occasion.  We are deeply grateful to AIYS, and we cannot better conclude this short account by repeating Jim Clark’s words, just quoted:

[We] wish the AIYS all the best on its 40th anniversary, it was there for us when we needed it.


Grolier, Maurice J.  1988.  Geological results of the American Museum of Natural History-National Geographic Society Expedition to the Yemen Arab Republic May 30-June 14, 1988.  In: Report on a Preliminary Survey of the Yemen Arab Republic.  American Museum of Natural History, submitted to National Geographic Society.

Henrici, Amy C. and Ana Maria Baez.  First occurrence of Xenopus (Anura: Pipidae) on the Arabian Peninsula: A new species from the Upper Oligocene of Yemen.  Jour. Paleont. 74 (4): 870-882.

Maisey, John.  1988.  Preliminary report on the fossil fish recovered at Khulaqah, Yemen Arab Republic.  In: Report on a Preliminary Survey of the Yemen Arab Republic.  American Museum of Natural History, submitted to National Geographic Society.

Novacek, Michael J.  2002.  Time Traveler.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tattersall, Ian, Michael J. Novacek and Maurice J. Grolier.  1988.  Report on a Preliminary Survey of the Yemen Arab Republic.  American Museum of Natural History, submitted to National Geographic Society.

Tattersall, Ian, Clark, James M., and Peter Whybrow.  1995.  Paleontological reconnaissance in Yemen.  Bull Amer. Inst. Yemeni Studies 37: 21-24.

Whybrow, Peter.  2000.  Arabia Felix: fossilised fruits and the price of frogs.  In: Whybrow, P. ed.), Travels with the Fossil Hunters. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp.  196-205.

 This post is part of the anniversary of AIYS at 40. Click here for other reflections.