Mary Anning was the greatest fossil hunter the world ever knew
People nowadays can readily see fossils of prehistoric animals by simply visiting a museum or learn more about them by searching the internet. But have you ever wondered how these fossils were found when nobody even knew they existed? Thanks to the effort of a simple uneducated girl from a poor family, world-renowned scientists understood the world better. The girl’s name? Mary Anning, an English citizen who had her first major paleontology find by age 12 and went on to find hundreds, maybe thousands, more fossils in her lifetime.
Anning’s story has captured the modern imagination and her work has been memorialized in several works of fairly recent fiction and non-fiction. But in her day, the woman who was arguably the greatest fossil hunter in the world did not receive the recognition she had earned. Part of this was due to her gender and her lifestyle of poverty and simple hard work also contributed. To understand the sheer impact of Anning’s discoveries and excavations and the rich story of her personal background, here are five facts that shaped her life and work:
Mary survived more than one natural catastrophe
It was believed that when Mary was one year old, lightning struck a fair during a thunderstorm. The bolt killed the woman holding Mary and two other people, but Mary was unhurt. It was said that she became cleverer and more energetic after the incident.
Much later, after she was already an established fossil hunter, Mary almost died during a landslide. In 1833, she had developed the habit of searching for fossils in the Blue Lias cliffs during the winter because landslides in the cold months tended to expose new fossils. The work was dangerous and while Anning managed to escape this particular landslide with her life, it killed her dog.
Mary had two “firsts” to her name
Born in 1799 on England’s southern coast, Anning was the daughter of a cabinetmaker who had a thing for hunting fossils. His death in 1810 left Mary, her brother, and mother destitute, and the two kids took up fossil hunting to make money to pay bills. This sad turn in the family fortunes led to Anning becoming one of the world’s foremost fossil hunters. The beach near their house was perfectly suited to the endeavor. It was already laden with exposed fossils and the frequent storms in the area battered Lyme Regis’ limestone cliffs to reveal more.
The first big find that’s often credited to her was actually her brother’s discovery. He’d found a fossil that seemed to be a crocodile head and gave his sister the job of excavating it from the rock. She dug out the “crocodile” skull and followed with the excavation of 60 vertebrae. But these were not crocodile remains. Instead, Mary had excavated the first complete Ichthyosaurus fossil, making the “fish-lizard” the first extinct animal known to the scientific community. The fossil became income for the Anning’s, selling to a private collector for what must have seemed to the children a hefty sum: £23.
From there, her brother went on to become an upholsterer and Mary was on fire as a fossil hunter. She also discovered the first plesiosaur, which was considered her most important find when measured by the scientific yardstick. Despite her many discoveries, it was only after she found the remains of plesiosaur that she became a legitimate and respected fossilist in the eyes of the scientific community.
Mary’s gender kept her from full recognition during her lifetime
Single her whole life and usually struggling to put food on her table, Anning had almost no formal education. Still, she was able to teach herself complicated sciences including geology, paleontology, and anatomy and picked up illustrating skills when she needed them. In her lifetime, she interacted with top scientists, often promoting their work or careers without receiving credit. She obtained fossils and even hunted alongside well-known paleontologist Richard Owen, for example. Today, Anning’s role in advancing the theory of evolution is well-known.
But back then, it was accepted that the male scientists would write up Anning’s finds instead of her publishing her own scientific papers. As a woman, she was not even able to become a member of the Geological Society, though she was an honorary member. That organization did not admit a full-fledged female member until 1904, decades after Anning’s death in 1847 from breast cancer.
Mary has been recognized widely in the years since her death
While she was a hidden figure in her own time, modern history recognizes Mary as a major contributor to paleontology and perhaps the world’s best fossil hunter. London’s Natural History Museum has designated her story and some of her finds as a core attraction, for example, and there is now a Lyme Regis Museum on her birth site. Even the Geological Society has unbent, and one of her ichthyosaur skull fossil finds and her portrait now grace their front hall.
Ordinary citizens may know her best from the tongue twister she inspired in 1908. That’s right, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”
Mary has captured many an author’s imagination
Anning and the major discoveries she made between 1811 and 1847 have become the subject of many books. These include anything from biography The Fossil Hunter by journalist Shelley Emling to The Fossil Girl, a graphic novel for reluctant readers by Catherine Brighton. Best known in recent times is the novel Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring.