Juan and I have been friends since we were 8. We met while taking English lessons in Jardín América, a small town of the beautiful Misiones Province in Northeast Argentina. The afternoon of the first class, I arrived early and when Ángel, the English teacher, saw my brand new books covered with paper full of dinosaurs, he asked me:
– "Do you like dinosaurs? Then I'm sure you'll get along well with Juan Martín." And so we did.
Like many children of the '90s, the dinomania hit us both pretty hard. We went to the Jurassic Park premiere together. Seeing all those dinosaurs alive touched us deeply. Those were times when paleontological findings were reported in the newspapers and on TV regularly. This obsession with dinosaurs died out when the public became bored with superlative headlines like "the first," "the oldest," or "the biggest." But such was not the case for Juan and me. Thanks to our families actively promoting our interest, we could regularly access fresh reading material and documentaries. We were eager to learn!
I fondly remember the clippings of discoveries from the newspaper La Nación that my grandfather sent me, covering the last findings in Patagonia or Ischigualasto in the San Juan Province. The novels about dinosaurs, such as "The Lost World" by Michael Crichton and "La Sombra del Dinosaurio" by Pablo De Santis that I read more times than I want to admit. And, of course, the magazine collection "Dinosaurios." It was not hard to convince my mom to buy them for me. Every week after the English class, she took me to the newsstand to pick up my fresh new copy, as long as my school performance remained consistent and the fights with my sister didn’t blow off the roof. From those magazines, we learned everything. Where they used to live and how many million years ago. How big or small they were. If they were herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores. If they were terrestrial or aquatic, or if they could fly. How they hunted or defended themselves. If they took care of their offspring or if they walked in herds. All the things that can be learned from the fossil record. We memorized the scientific names and characteristics of more than a hundred different dinosaurs while examining every fascicle together.
Juan and I always went to different schools. We saw each other only in English class, at birthday parties, or when we were allowed to spend a weekend at his place or mine. We used to play like most kids that age should. We ran, hid, and climbed. Much of our day was also spent on video games, mainly in Juan's house because it wasn’t allowed at mine. But there were also imagination games, mostly at my house, because the time in front of the screen was rigorously gauged by my mom. On one of those sunny weekends, we spent an afternoon in a vast sandbox nearby a construction site. We buried some of our most beloved toys in the sand. We were paleontologists who discovered the buried toys millions of years later by carefully removing the sand with the help of a small paintbrush or a toy beach shovel. I bet some of those toys are still there, ready to be discovered by the next generation of toy paleontologists.
Eventually, dinosaurs started to bore me too. Well into my 15s, I developed an obsessive interest in computers. After that, I dedicated myself to studying computer science for the rest of my life. But Juan never lost his love for dinosaurs. We moved to La Plata, in Buenos Aires province, when we reached the age to start our university careers. Some years later, I got my Computer Science degree shortly after Juan Martin got his degree in Paleontology, but with so much effort. I remember long afternoons in which we studied together at his apartment. Juan's sister used to help me with math. At the same time, he struggled to memorize the systematic characteristics of some taxon while we drank mate and chit-chatted. After the degree, the Ph.D. studies came, and with them, the travels. Juan moved from La Plata to the province of San Juan, the cradle of dinosaurs. I spent several months in Europe as part of my doctorate program and ended up in Czechia as a post-doc. Juan and I spent months without seeing each other. Months that turned into years. COVID played its part too. But we always kept in touch, calling us every few months as good old friends do.
That September was three or four months since our last call. I checked for the +4 hours difference between Prague and San Juan and started a video call with him. After the usual inquiries about life and family, he suddenly remembered something!
– "Boludo! No te conté! (Dude! I didn't tell you!) During the campaign trip last month, I found a dinosaur!"
– "What?" I said incredulously. I knew my friend did his Ph.D. in fossilized plants. Dinosaurs were not his area of expertise, after all. But he always loved dinosaurs. After finishing his Ph.D., he wanted to switch to vertebrates, so he went into a campaign to look for fossil bones.
– "Yes!" he continued. "During the first day of the campaign, we were prospecting. We spread to cover the field, searching for fossils. El Viejo, Diego, Carlos Mario, Octavio, and I went out early. But by noon, my hands were still empty. I had crossed paths with El Viejo, the boss, and he said, `Did you find something? I already found plenty of fragments.` I was so pissed! Even though it was my first time looking for bones, it wasn't my first campaign. I felt like a newbie. I went the other way and found some fragments by myself. I got excited because it was the first fossil bones I found on the field. But after that, I took a turn and saw it. First, a vertebra, loose on the ground, this size." He made a circle sign bigger than a tennis ball with his hands. His eyes were wide open, and he looked visibly excited. "Then, to the right, I saw more vertebras that looked to be from the back or pelvis. And finally, I saw what it looked like the femoral head, but like… huge! Basketball size! These are the Triassic period rocks we were looking at. There weren't many dinosaurs that big in this era. I took a couple of pictures and marked the GPS point. That night I showed it to everyone. El Viejo is a very seasoned paleontologist with plenty of experience. When he saw the images, he said, `Meh, it doesn't look important. I can't see much from these pictures.` The truth is I didn’t have the experience to assess its importance (nor to take good pictures, apparently). So, if El Viejo said so, maybe it wasn't that important. But on the campaign's last day, we went to collect some samples. The GPS said we were 300 meters from where I found the remains. So I convinced everyone to take a look. We arrived at the spot, and then El Viejo saw the femoral head. He transformed into an 8-year-old boy! `Look at this,` and `It's that big, and look, it is articulated. Diego! come to see this!` But this was our last day. We were going back to San Juan the following day. So we pick up whatever was loose, but most of it is still in the field."
He continued telling me more details like the bones were stuck into a hill, and thus, there was a chance it was complete, but I was no longer listening. My head was processing what my friend just told me. He found a dinosaur! And it was still in the field! At some point, I interrupted him:
– "Dude, we need to go dig it."
– "Yes, we are going. Next year." Juan replied.
– "No, no. I mean, WE need to go."
– "But I don't know if YOU can come. And we need to get the money first."
– "How much money?"
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We spent the next few weeks planning the trip to excavate Juan's findings. I arrived in the serene city of San Juan in April between excitement and fear. Excitement because I was allowed to go with the group of paleontologists, and I was about to dig up a real dinosaur with my friend. And fear precisely because of that. The agreement was that I could go to the campaign, but I would need to work side-by-side with the rest of the team. With no experience in excavation beside the sandbox and seeing Jurassic Park a zillion times, I would be hammering near a treasure 205 million years old. If I fucked up, I fucked up for good! But my friend calmed me down.
– "We are going with Diego." He explained to me. "He is the technician. He knows how to dig dinosaurs and will not allow you or anyone to fuck it up. Just follow his lead, as we all do."
Juan was waiting for me at the airport. I ran the numbers, and between the travels, the moving, and the pandemic, we hadn't seen each other for 4 years. However, after a huge hug, we started talking like we had parted ways a few days before.
Juan took me to El Viejo’s house, so he could discuss the last organizational details with him. We were 11 to go in the campaign. Diego, the technician; Carina, Juan's former Ph.D. supervisor; Paula and Carlos Mario, from the geological team; El Grillo, Diego's helper and shadow; Claire and Cecilia, two specialists in sauropodomorphs; Octavio, the local guide; and of course, El Viejo, Juan, and myself. We planned to spend 10 days at the campsite and retrieve whatever we could. If there was enough time, Carlos Mario found another small dino that was nearby and worth picking up. But we needed to find out how big and complete Juan's dino was. We needed to dig a bit to tell.
In the early morning of my third day in San Juan City, we all left in three 4x4 trucks plus a trailer with directions to the southeast of the province. The bulkiest things we carried were the tanks with almost 600 liters of water. The digging place was in the middle of the desert, 40 kilometers south of a little town called Marayes. There are no roads, toilets or showers, no internet, not even cellphone coverage, no electricity (except for the gas generator and the solar electric chargers), and of course, no water other than the one we took with us.
We arrived at the place around 3p.m. and started to set up the camping site, which entertained us for the rest of the afternoon. I spent the first night getting familiar with the team and talking about geology and dinosaurs. Carina, Paula, and Carlos Mario were in charge of the edaphological and stratigraphical studies in the area to help correctly determine the age of the rocks and to reconstruct the environmental conditions of that time. They know the sediments were between 210 and 205 million years old, the late Triassic period. But the more precise, the better. Claire and Cecilia told me the fossils Juan found were probably a sauropodomorph, an early ancestor of the giant sauropods of the Jurassic era. However, very few examples of dinosaurs this big were known to live in the Triassic. Claire had experience studying some of these big sauropodomorphs from Southern Africa and Southwestern China. But Juan's dino wasn't one of them. Cecilia also did research on sauropodomorphs. She and El Viejo named together the remains of Ingentia prima, discovered in the Quebrada del Barro formation. Still, from it, only the front right leg was found, a couple of vertebras, and pretty much nothing else. So Claire and Cecilia were very interested in Juan's finding as if their future research depended on it. They will be studying these remains. If Juan's dino is Ingentia, Claire and Cecilia will have more bones to run comparisons with the other fossils. If it is not Ingentia, they will probably need to find a new name for it.
During the following days, we dug. Suddenly Juan and I were in the sandbox again, excavating for real and living the dream of discovery! I took every chance to get my hands dirty, either hammering and brushing side by side with my friend, gluing bone fragments with El Grillo, or cutting burlap to make the plaster jackets: a bundle of rock, bones, and plaster that allows us to wrap and move the remains to the museum without fear of damaging them.
By the second day, we already knew how large the dino could be. Diego was diligent and took the time to explain every task to me. When far from the fossils, we should use the heavy-duty electric hammer or the hammer and the chisel, the shovel, and the hoe. But near the bones, we should switch to more delicate tools, like a dental toothpick and a small brush. I will treasure my pictures of those moments!
By the fifth day, we had recovered both humeri and already knew there weren't any hands. Also, the hips and pubis were almost complete, and the rear legs seemed tucked into the center of the hill. Thus, they could be well preserved.
The days at the excavation site were long. The temperature was high, and the sun was ruthless. The landscapes are desolate. Everything has thorns. The dust turns everything into a reddish hue, and the shadows are scarce. In contrast, the nights at the camping were cold and incredibly dark. The sky, without the moon, was full of stars. The food was excellent and abundant to replenish the energy loss of the day. The wine and talk by the campfire were fabulous too. Octavio told me the histories of previous campaigns, people lost in the desert, and dangerous animals living there, like the pumas and boars. Carina told me horror stories about flooded tents and accidents stepping into Algarrobo (Prosopis chilensis) thrones. Diego made a fair history of when he found the first remains of the Ingentia, mistaking them for guanaco bones. And El Viejo told me that once while doing prospection on all-fours, he discovered the skull and body of what was later named Eoraptor lunensis.
I also went into profound talks with my friend. We noticed in awe this phenomenon that occurred between Juan and me. Sometimes, we didn't talk for months. But when we do it by phone or in person, it is like no time has elapsed. As if some connection beyond the space-time dimension held us together and manifests itself when we get together.
We asked each other, what magic surrounds the dinosaurs that trigger this kind of will to go find them. Why does this need-to-know exist? Why this hunger to learn about their lives, evolution, and extinction? What calls us to excavate for the explanations? And what role this plays in our friendship? All questions with answers buried deep, but not for that unworth to dig for.
He confessed to me that he was very nervous about organizing the campaign and about me coming along. During his first time as organizer, he needed to ensure nothing was missing during the camp days, and that money was enough. On top of that, he wasn't sure if I would be able to endure the harsh conditions of the desert or if I would blend with the rest of the group. But his worries dissipated when everything we needed was bought, when the money matched the budget, and when he saw me enjoying the experience and getting along with the rest of the team. That said, the group is "special" in a fabulous, unforgettable way. And the conditions in the desert are fucking hard. Did I mention that there is no internet? For me, an IT guy with over-connection syndrome, that was a dream holiday. I don't remember the last time I slept so well. Yes, in a tent. Yes, without a mattress. But also without any lights but the stars' and in absolute silence except for the wind. Pumas do not make any noise... but you can see their footprints in the morning.
By day 8th, we unearthed the femurs, tibias, fibulas, and rear foot with most of the phalanges intact. Of course, a big part of the tail, neck, and whole skull were missing. The fossilized heads are infrequent to be found. With the plaster jackets ready to be transported to the city, there wasn't enough time to retrieve Carlos Mario's findings. We spent the rest of the last day looking for new petrified remains in the surroundings. I found nothing of what I looked for, and now I know how difficult it is to distinguish a fossil bone in a sea of stones. But I found some other things I wasn't searching for. Memories that I will cherish dearly. The cold nights warmed by the fire and the group's company, the scent of the Jarilla (Larrea nitida) in the morning, and the happiness painted on my friend's face.
I left these dry lands after 14 incredible days. On my list of "Things I need to do before I die," now there is a checkmark just on the side of the "Dig a dinosaur with Juan Martin" item. Now the team needs to clean the bones, study them and prepare them for exhibition. I was told the discovery was so important that it would be displayed in its own room in the new building of the Natural Science Museum in San Juan City, soon to be finished. It is as good an excuse as any to pay another visit to my friend.