On the southeast coast of Newfoundland, near North America’s farthest eastward reach, lies a promontory of rocky cliffs called Mistaken Point. The place got its name from the shipwrecks it helped cause in foggy weather, when sea captains mistook it for somewhere else. Today it represents something quite different: a set of extraordinary clues, recently reinterpreted, to one of the deepest and most puzzling mysteries of life on Earth. After burbling along for more than three billion years as tiny, mostly single-celled things, why did life suddenly erupt into a profusion of complex creatures—multicellular, big, and astonishing? Although these new life-forms spread worldwide, beginning at least 570 million years ago, the earliest evidence of them has been found in one place: Mistaken Point. Paleontologists have been going there for decades. But what the experts think they see now, in small nuances with large implications, is radical and new.
On a cool autumn day I made the journey to Mistaken Point myself, driving south from St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital, in a rented Jeep, along a black ribbon of highway through forests of spruce and fir. With me were Marc Laflamme of the University of Toronto Mississauga and his longtime colleague Simon Darroch, an Englishman based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
We reached Mistaken Point beneath a blue sky and a blazing sun—rare weather, Laflamme told me, but the strong angled light, especially in late afternoon, helped highlight the subtle fossils we had come to see.