Petrified Forest National Park

Geology & Archaeology
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Petrified Forest is a vast graveyard, hiding and protecting the fossil remains of once-living organisms. The 22.5-million-year-old (Triassic Period) fossils are being studied by paleontologists, scientists who study ancient and changing forms of life. Surprisingly, the fossils show this now-dry region was once tropical. Close your eyes and picture a canopy of green trees, smells of rotting vegetation, and the grunts and growls of unusual creatures who called the swamp home.

Marshy land was the ideal environment for amphibians such as the flat-headed Metoposaur. Primitive reptiles also roamed the land. Desmatosuchus, an armadillo-like herbivore, was encased in a horny suit of armor.

Paleontologists have discovered more than 150 species of fossil plants in Petrified Forest. The most obvious is petrified wood. Large trees, growing in this area millions of years ago, were buried in sediments containing minerals that eventually turned them to stone. Compressed leaves, stems, and even spores and pollen grains are clues that show the variety of plants that once lived here.

Important new discoveries include fossilized termite and bee's nests. This new evidence shows that these insects were buzzing around even before flowering plants were growing.

Just as fossils help paleontologists learn about prehistoric plants and animals, remnants of early residents tell archaeologists how people ate, slept, worked, and clothed themselves. Evidence indicates that people have lived here for nearly 10,000 years.

The earliest inhabitants were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Later the people banded together and built communities of pueblo-style dwellings. With so many mouths to feed in one place, more food was needed. Farming became a necessity. Crops of corn, beans, and squash were planted. Just like today, these early farmers counted on rain to make their crops grow. In dry years, the crops failed and the people went hungry.

Petroglyphs, figures, and designs pecked into rock surfaces by early residents allow a glimpse back in time. These images may tell stories, record special events, or just be random doodles. Current research suggests that some petroglyphs are solar calendars. Solar calendars are usually circles and spirals that interact with sunlight and surrounding rocks to mark the passage of the seasons. If you visit the park near the summer solstice you can see a calendar work at Puerco Pueblo.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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