Dorothea Bate: A fearless fossil hunter

In the latest instalment of our occasional series profiling remarkable yet unheralded characters from history, Karolyn Shindler introduces the palaeontologist Dorothea Bate, who climbed mountains, swam to remote caves and cheated starvation to discover a series of remarkable dwarf mammals

Dorothea Bate. (Illustration: Stavros Damos for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Even at four o’clock in the morning it was warm. The stars were just beginning to lose their brilliance, but it was still dark. Light would not come for at least an hour. But Dorothea Bate had just one thought: to reach her goal at the edge of the sea on the far side of the inhospitable Akrotiri peninsula in western Crete. It was a hazardous journey, by pony, of several hours, and even by 8am the temperature on that exposed, limestone terrain could be 30C or more.

Bate had arrived in Crete on 5 March 1904, and for nearly five months the courageous 25-year-old had explored from one end of this long, mountainous island to the other. She was hunting for extinct fossil mammals to add to the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. She had no companions. Dorothea explored alone, hiring local men as guides or to do the heavy digging – or to set the gunpowder or dynamite when the only way she knew to get through a rock floor was to blast it open.

So far she had discovered extinct species of dwarf hippos, no larger than a pig, extinct species of deer and the bones of an ancient species of full-size elephant. What she was desperate to find were the remains of the dwarf elephants she was sure must have once existed on the island, but had so far eluded her. This hot July morning was her last chance before she had to return home.

So difficult was the going as she neared the sea that she left her pony and continued on foot. “Beastly hot and rough walking,” she noted in her diary, but in the blazing sunshine and with the heat of the rock coming through her boots, she struggled on. And finally, on the sea-battered shore of the Akrotiri, she was finally “well rewarded for this at last was the place I have been looking for”. Some weeks previously, Dorothea had been given a fossil dwarf elephant tooth (see illustration, right) which she had been told came from the area, and incredibly, here in the rock she “saw the imprint from where it had been broken off”. From “frightfully hard” rock she managed to extract specimens including molar teeth and sections of a tiny tusk – vital in identifying the species of animal. On her return to the Natural History Museum in London, the dwarf elephant was discovered to be a species new to science. It was named Elephas creticus Bate.

Insects in the grass

Dorothea Minola Alice Bate was born in Wales in 1878. Much of her childhood was spent observing birds or learning to identify insects near the river Teifi. When her family moved to the Wye Valley, she became fascinated by the small Ice Age fossils she found in the limestone caves there.

In 1898, when she was just 19, Bate talked her way into a job at the Natural History Museum. This was a time when it was almost wholly a male preserve; women were not employed on the scientific staff until 1928. Dorothea was always an unofficial scientific worker, paid piecework depending on the number of fossils she prepared. Although not a member of staff, such was her ability that in 1924 she was appointed curator of Ice Age birds and mammals.

Dorothea had charm, wit and intelligence – and absolutely no understanding of the word ‘no’. She was self-taught but the Natural History Museum was her university and her life. It was scientists there who encouraged her to explore the Mediterranean and it was Dorothea’s pioneering work that revealed the main extinct species of the islands. Doro thea’s adventures really began in 1901. With family friends, she travelled to Cyprus where she planned systematically to search for fossil mammals in the limestone caves of the island. She is thought to have been the first person, male or female, to do so, and her fossil collections – from Cyprus, Crete, the Balearic Islands, Malta and Bethlehem – are preserved in the Natural History Museum.

She put herself at extreme risk during her excavations, contracting malaria in Cyprus, scarlet fever in Majorca and nearly starving in Crete. In west Crete, on being told of a bone cave inaccessible by boat, she climbed down the cliff, swam to the cave, excavated some fossil bones there, and swam back, carrying her geological hammer and bag containing her finds. She endured horrendous journeys by boat and rattling carts. She suffered dreadfully from travel sickness, slept in flea-infested hovels and yet, wrote the American archaeologist Edith Hall, whom she met in Crete in 1904, she “dresses well”.

A goaty antelope

In Majorca and Menorca, Bate discovered the remains of a small animal unique to those islands, which is so specialised there isn’t even a common name for it. She called it Myotragus, mouse goat. It’s a small goaty antelope, with extraordinary front teeth usually only found in rodents. It is a marvellous example of evolution, adaptation, survival – and extinction. She had a skeleton constructed (see illustration) from the splendid bones she discovered and today, for the first time in more than 70 years, it is on display in the Natural History Museum.

What interested Dorothea in particular was what is now known as the ‘island rule’: that, on islands, large animals become smaller (dwarfing), while small ones become larger. Such was her expertise, it was said that if sufficient quantities of bony fragments were sent to her, then she could suggest not only the species but the climate and environment as well.

In the last 10 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Dorothea’s fossil collections. New research into her specimens has led to the little Cretan elephant being redescribed as the world’s smallest known mammoth – it was about 1 metre high.

In 1948, when she was nearly 70, Dorothea became officer in charge of the Natural History Museum’s offshoot museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. It was her first managerial role, and her last – for she died three years later, aged 72. The archaeologist Anthony Arkell, with whom she was working at the time, wrote: “Her widely lamented death has robbed archaeologists and prehistorians of a palaeontologist whose co-operation was invaluable and knowledge unique.”

Today, through the legacy of her collections and papers, Dorothea Bate’s unique knowledge – and spirit – survives, inspiring new generations of scientists.

Karolyn Shindler is a former producer and editor at the BBC. Her book Discovering Dorothea: The Pioneering Fossil-Hunter Dorothea Bate was republished by NHM Publishing in July

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Listen again: To listen to the episode of the Radio 4 series Natural History Heroes on Dorothea Bate, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06d8jrd