The protection of the “Breal de Orocual”, paleontological site of the “Cimitarra Sabre Tooth” fossil, an unprecedented, if not unique, initiative of the Venezuelan oil industry and its social and cultural arm PDVSA La Estancia.
Venezuela is a land of grace. It is not only about its landscapes, its natural resources and, above all, its people, but also about its paleontological heritage.
In 2006, José Campos, a worker of the Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA, together with other colleagues, imbued with the social and ecological spirit that at that time prevailed in the vision of said public “holding”, while digging a trench for the installation of an oil pipeline in the outskirts (exactly 20 kilometers) of the city of Maturín, Monagas State, located in the town of Orocual, in areas known as the “Orinoco Oil Belt”, where the largest certified crude oil reserve on the planet is located, they came across a paleontological site with 34 fossils of vertebrate animals in a good state of preservation, which led to the immediate stoppage of the work. And, fortunately, the modification of the Oil Project in execution; and, consequently, the change of route of the pipeline.
Despite more than 100 years of oil activity and the knowledge of such paleontological sites by the company’s national and foreign geologists, who had already explored the area extensively, it was only at that time that the area was intervened to give priority to the protection of the fossils.
The verification and valorization of the paleontological site was carried out by the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC), which assigned the Venezuelan Paleontologist Ascanio Rincón, who, during the excavations, identified an area called “Breal”, that is, an asphalt pit, in which, due to the viscous characteristics of the mantle, the stagnation of the species by layers had been favored throughout the different prehistoric periods.
The Institute had the support of the oil company for the investigation, and its management, PDVSA La Estancia, the organization that I had the privilege of presiding, was specifically in charge of the divulgation of the fact, by virtue of its competencies in the protection of cultural heritage, for the purpose of making the discovery known worldwide and to the Venezuelan population in general.
In fact, on November 4, 2008, we organized at the headquarters of our institution, the “First International Paleontological Meeting on the “Breal de Orocual” held in Venezuela, where 16 scientists (biologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, geographers, archaeologists) from various parts of the world, were present to exchange on the discovery, having been transferred to the paleontological site for a field visit, which allowed them to corroborate the characteristics of the same.
The scholars qualified the area as a fossiliferous deposit dating from the late Pleistocene, from approximately 3 to 2.5 million years ago; and which, it turns out to be today, the largest on the planet, which has 37,000 meters deep and approximately 18,500 square meters and which competes in importance with the very varied in paleontological riches on earth, called “Rancho La Brea” in Texas, United States. In fact, its discovery included Venezuela in the South American and world paleo-biological context.
In the paleontological site of Orocual, our management entity (PDVSA La Estancia) built an ecologically reversible trench type structure, which allows the settlement of scientists for the deepening of the findings.
Likewise, an invitation was extended to the surrounding communities and schools in the area to promote internships and volunteer work to spread awareness of the discovery, its importance, and the need to care for it.
An important step was the introduction of applications to the National and Local Cultural Heritage Institute for the site’s declaration as a heritage site, in anticipation of preparing the application to UNESCO as a Natural Heritage of Humanity site.
On the other hand, at the PDVSA La Estancia headquarters, we mounted, together with IVIC, a very complete exhibition, in which, through images and designs made by the two almost unique worldwide experts in paleontological drawing, we were able to identify each of the fossils found; and, especially, the most relevant: the “Scimitar Saber Tooth”, to which scientists gave that name due to the similarity of its fangs with the long curved blade saber, originally from the Middle East. It was also identified as “Homotherius Venezueliensis”, for being exclusive of the region where it was found (Monagas/Venezuela).
In the analysis carried out by the invited experts, the discovery of the “Scimitar Tooth” was qualified as one of the most important in universal paleontology, since it not only confirms the original thesis of the year 1919, but which is still under study and development, of the Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI), understood as the paleo zoogeographic process that implied the migration of fauna from North America to South America and vice versa, due to the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, after the emergence of both continents, after the emergence of both continents as a result of the division of the “Pangaea” (or single mass that originally formed the earth). It also corroborates scientists’ suspicions about the existence of this type of vertebrate species in the south of the continent.
Now, in the exhibition held in our House, which later toured different regions of the country, and which was opened to the public on November 22, 2012, visitors could appreciate the replica of a megatherium fossil (“Megalonychidae gen. et sp. Indet.”), a huge mammal, similar to modern sloths, which reached dimensions of 3 to 6 meters long and weighed between 3 and 4 tons. The first fossils of this unique animal were found in the Oligocene of the Argentine Patagonia, 35 million years ago, and its distribution covered almost all of America and the West Indies.
In the “Breal de Orocual” bones of the hands and legs of this gigantic species of “Megalonychidae” were found, confirming that this animal inhabited this area of the state of Monagas. These “mega sloths” were terrestrial herbivores that inhabited the edges of the forests and open savannahs, forming an important part of the already mentioned Great Exchange of the Americas, since their record goes from Patagonia to Alaska.
Along with this immense replica, there were also scale reproductions of armadillos, equines, and other species. The exhibition was crowned by an impressive mural that reproduced the habitat of the megafauna of the Late Pleistocene (126,000–11,784 B.P.), a period that was inhabited by animals such as tapirs, horses, camels, giant anteaters, snakes, turtles, waterfowl, sparrow hawks, vultures, monkeys, ducks, giant sloths, porcupines, rodents and bones of the aforementioned saber-toothed tiger (Homotherium venezuelensis).
The exhibition had touch screens where children and adults could consult information about these animals, as well as listen to impressive reproductions of sounds, like those emitted by the saber-toothed tigers or the various species of monkeys.
The children were invited to participate in activities in which, dressed as explorers, they were made to dig in sand surfaces to locate fossil species and toy bones. They were also given cards and memory games with detailed images of the animals found, made by our experts in paleontological designs.
After this discovery, and thanks to the construction of the trench for the “in situ” exploration of the site, the researchers, always under the guidance of paleontologist Ascanio Rincón, this time accompanied by Professor Nicholas Czaplewski of the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, have continued to make discoveries, the last one (2020), a fossil, never found before, of a giant vampire bat (Phyllostomidae, Desmodontinae, Desmodontinae), dating back to the Pliocene-Plesistocene epoch, i.e., more than 2.5 million years ago.
It has been discussed whether fossil remains, which are those sought, identified, and protected by paleontology, as opposed to those consisting of objects, constructions and material goods, which are dealt with by archaeology, can be considered cultural heritage, even though they do not come from the hand of man, or would only fit within the qualification of natural heritage.
We understand that heritage is built when we apply a valuation criterion to the remains and then these places and pieces take on real importance in society due to the identity link that is generated between people and the fossil.
Hence, it is valid to place a paleontological site within both categories, although, especially, to insist on its classification as cultural heritage, because it accompanies the spirit of the people, their customs, and beliefs; and its recognition and declaration as heritage allows, on the one hand, its protection and, on the other hand, the promotion of its study as a scientific instrument.
Finally, it is necessary to point out that our scientist Ascanio Rincón is one of the few Venezuelan paleontologists. His role has been definitive in these findings of universal value. Now, we believe that supporting and disseminating the paleontological heritage is also a way to promote the study of this discipline, to have instruments that allow us to safeguard our past in favor of a future respectful of the environment and ecology; and consequently, a sustainable future.