Trilobites In History

     In the spring of 1886, a group of intrepid archaeologists began exploring a series of limestone caves located near the French community of Arcy-sur-Cure. They were in search of human relics -- including spear points and bone utensils -- dating back to the Pleistocene epoch. What they found was something considerably older… and totally unexpected.
     Inside one of the caves, in a layer that was subsequently dated to 15,000 years ago, they discovered a 400 million year old trilobite with a hand-drilled hole through its tail, a detail which then allowed the fossil to be displayed as an amulet or fetish. From its well-worn, rather weathered appearance, it was clear to these explorers that this trilobite had once been held in high esteem as a treasured totem by those who once inhabited what eventually came to be known as the Grotte du Trilobite.
      The fact is that trilobites have long played a role (albeit a relatively minor one) in human history. Despite the roughly 250 million years that separate the demise of the trilobite line and the rise of our own species, there has been a surprising degree of interaction between trilobites and humans throughout our span on Planet Earth. 
    While some of our Ice Age ancestors in Europe apparently revered trilobites, so did a variety of Native American tribes, especially those located in the southwestern desert. There, members of the Ute tribe routinely wore 500 million year old Elrathia kingi specimens around their necks as talisman to ward off evil spirits. Indeed, petroglyphs that seemingly depict trilobites have been found adorning cliff walls in southern Utah… and these man-made images could be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Evidence of this tribal fascination with trilobites extends all the way up to British Columbia, and all the way down to Australia, where amulets featuring trilobites of varying sizes and shapes have been discovered in a number of Aboriginal sites. 
    In more advanced societies, descriptions of strange “scorpion stones” appear in certain European writings dating back to the 3rd Century. At roughly the same time, references to “swallow stones” (actually the disarticulated pygidia of the Cambrian trilobite Neodrepanura) can be found dotting a number of Chinese documents. And it is known that a thousand years ago, trilobites were often treasured throughout China as decorative items adorning places of honor within the most cultured homes.
    Despite these early manifestations, the true study of trilobites didn't begin until the last years of the 17th Century. It was then, in England, that Reverend Edward Lhwyd made the first direct mention of a trilobite in scientific literature, describing what he called a “flat fish”…  which centuries later would be identified as the trilobite Ogygiocarella. In the scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal SocietyLhwyd also presented a number of carefully constructed drawings of his find, which represent the first widely dispersed images of a trilobite.
    Some 140 years later, in 1839, renowned Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison laid the groundwork for future trilobite research with his historic book, The Silurian System. That manuscript described the fossil fauna throughout Britain, and its subsequent notoriety turned Murchison into a sensation within Europe's most erudite circlesA few years later, Englishman Charles Lyttleton conducted the first direct research on trilobites by submitting a paper to the Royal Society of London on the famed Dudley Locust, now known as the Silurian trilobite Caymene blumenbachi. His description of this “petrified insect” fueled a firestorm of controversy across the nation, and for all intents and purposes ignited the scientific debate regarding the role of trilobites within the animal kingdom. 
    All of these early efforts led directly to the ensuing, pioneering, and oft-lauded trilobite related research done by the likes of French naturalist Joachim Barrande and American adventurer Charles Walcott. Their accomplishments, along with the subsequent endeavors of many others, have each added important chapters to the ever-evolving history of the world's favorite fossilized arthropod, the trilobite.