|Fossils In Wadi Hitan (Valley Of Whales). Wikimedia Commons|
The evening of January 19, 18-- found us seated about a fire in the middle of the desert, having spent a full two days swaying upon the backs of that venerable, yet troublesome, beast known as the camel. After spending time in Afghanistan many years ago, I was somewhat tolerant of the conditions; nonetheless, I was sunburned and rather distressed at our provided meal of questionable mutton and tea. S.H., of course, had somehow retained his usual unrumpled and unperturbed mien; he spent the evening smoking comfortably with our guide and playing some sort of game, stopping every so often to examine what served them as dice.
Dawn found us striking off on foot; our destination, obviously, lay within a short walk. The rising sun illuminated the most remarkable monoliths and stone sculptures, eons of scouring winds having carved them into shapes in the most fantastic manner. S.H. began to stop and look down every so often; and, after a time, he knelt and picked up an object, proffering it to me with "What do you make of this, Watson?"
I immediately recognized it as coral, or at least a scrap of stone which bore an amazing resemblance to that form of sea life. But here, in the middle of a desert? Obviously it was some hoax, and S.H. would soon deduce the perpetrator and the reason, which I assumed would turn out to be monetary, as is the case with so many criminal endeavors.
It was while I was still examining this bit of supposed marine detritus that I heard S.H. calling to me cheerily.
"My dear fellow, I believe we have discovered what might pass for Leviathan."
"I should hope not. For that would mean that we are in hell, or at least passingly close, and though it might feel like it I've no wish to leave the good earth jus..." My tongue was stilled by the amazing sight laid out before me; a skeleton, of a creature seemingly once long and large, and though unique in several attributes bearing a distinct resemblance to the bony remains of a whale which had washed up on the Sussex shore when I was young and on holiday.
S.H. was silent for a time, pacing off the length of the beast, bending to scrutinize a bone here and there, jotting notes in a book. After a time, he called to our guide and asked for the astragali which they had been rolling the night before. He held the knucklebones in one hand, and some small bones he'd plucked from our Leviathan with the other.
"Tell me, with your medical knowledge, would you agree that these are from a similar part of the anatomy?"
I did agree; astragali, although commonly termed knucklebones, are actually the ankle bones of hoofed animals, and the bones in S.H.'s other hand bore a distinct resemblance to them, which begged the question of how a marine mammal would come to have ankle bones. Surely this was all the proof necessary to indicate that subterfuge was at work. Whoever had placed these bones here to astonish and perplex had misplayed their hand by mixing the remains of far different creatures.
"And so we merely need to find the perpetrator, presumably starting with the museums and institutes of learning, since one would need at least a passing knowledge of anatomy as well as access to old bones and a source of excursionists willing to both make the journey and pay accordingly." I felt myself on sure ground.
"This case is a particularly fascinating one, as it illustrates yet again a simple explanation for an affair which at first seems unfathomable. But, my dear Watson, I'm afraid that apprehending a culprit would be rather beyond any judicial entity, let alone myself, as the perpetrator would seem to be nature itself. You see, I've been working on a little theory; that animals, and indeed every living thing, are continually changing and adapting through the centuries. The earth is a palimpsest, with wind and water uncovering layer upon layer, revealing and then erasing, only to begin again. There is no reason not to believe that desert was once ocean, that whales once walked and then slowly lost their legs and took to the sea just as a tadpole does the opposite; that once upon a time enormous reptiles walked this earth giving rise to the legends of dragons and monsters; or that we humans were once something altogether different than what we are now. Perhaps that is where some of our basest instincts, our deepest fears, and our worst crimes stem; from some primeval version of ourselves."
"Surely you will collect this information and put forth your theory when we get back?" I replied, astounded by the ramifications of his brilliant explanation.
"Surely not," he replied, placing a hand on my arm, "nor do I wish you to discuss it with anyone at the moment. Good heavens, man, such a theory would set our staid society firmly upon its ear! I have no wish to engage in tiresome debate nor listen to the high pitched shrilling of those who will brook no idea other than the one found in particular religious tracts. I have devoted my life to the art of investigation; but it is the human heart, the endless criminal cycle of greed, betrayal, violence and fear that repeats over and over which captivates me. I study the individual; the species, I will leave to another. Once we are back home I intend to invite my old friend Charles D- to supper; I think he might be just the fellow to tackle this."
As it turned out, it was a wise decision. But then, I would have expected nothing less from such a great detective.
Author's note: Wadi Al-Hitan (Valley Of Whales) is a Unesco World Heritage site located in Egypt. The fossilized remains of ancient whales, sea cows, various large fish and coral have been found here, in the midst of a desert. The site reveals evidence for the explanation of one of the greatest mysteries of the evolution of whales: the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal.