Imagine this dry expanse underwater, with whales hunting and diving. Today visitors to Wadi Hitan walk a stone-lined path to see rocks that hold the fossils of the long-gone sea creatures.
Imagine this dry expanse underwater, with whales hunting and diving. Today visitors to Wadi Hitan walk a stone-lined path to see rocks that hold the fossils of the long-gone sea creatures.

Valley of the Whales

An Egyptian desert, once an ocean, holds the secret to one of evolution’s most remarkable transformations.

Thirty-seven million years ago, in the waters of the prehistoric Tethys Ocean, a sinuous, 50-foot-long beast with gaping jaws and jagged teeth died and sank to the seafloor.

Over thousands of millennia a mantle of sediment built up over its bones. The sea receded, and as the former seabed became a desert, the wind began to plane away the sandstone and shale above the bones. Slowly the world changed. Shifts in the Earth's crust pushed India into Asia, heaving up the Himalaya. In Africa, the first human ancestors stood up on their hind legs to walk. The pharaohs built their pyramids. Rome rose, Rome fell. And all the while the wind continued its patient excavation. Then one day Philip Gingerich showed up to finish the job.

At sunset one evening last November, Gin­gerich, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Michigan, lay full length beside the spinal column of the creature, called Basilosaurus, at a place in the Egyptian desert known as Wadi Hitan. The sand around him was strewn with fossil shark teeth, sea urchin spines, and the bones of giant catfish. "I spend so much time surrounded by these underwater creatures that pretty soon I'm living in their world," he said, prodding a log-size vertebra with his brush. "When I look at this desert, I see the ocean." Gingerich was searching for a key bit of the creature's anatomy, and he was in a hurry. The light was failing, and he needed to return to camp before his colleagues started to worry. Wadi Hitan is a beautiful but unforgiving place. Along with the bones of prehistoric sea monsters, Gingerich has found the remains of unlucky humans.

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