The Forgiven is, in part, a wonderful travelogue which explores deep into the heart of Morocco, in particular into the lives of the Moroccan fossil diggers.
Morocco is rich in a variety of fossils and because parts of the country's Anti-Atlas mountains (a part of the Atlas mountains also called Lesser Atlas or Little Atlas) date back more than 500 million years they are overflowing with them. Limestones from the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian periods abound. During the early Cambrian period, as improbable as it might seem now, these parts of Morocco were covered by sea, and animals such as trilobites were extremely common. Trilobites are extinct marine arthropods with an exoskeleton. Because their skeletons were hard and resisted compaction, they were easily fossilized within these limestone rocks. Trilobite fossils are found all over the world but they are especially abundant in the regions of Morocco that The Forgiven visits - Erfoud and the rural Tafilat area in the southeast part of the country.
The fossil mining industry in Morocco has thrived to such a great extent that it has become an important arm of the tourism industry in the region. Tourists can pick up a small fossil or coffee table with a fossil embedded in polished limestone and almost anything in between. Since preservation is of the essence here, manual work is favored over machines; often only picks and shovels are used with backbreaking and tedious labor, and then meticulous attention is paid to the minute work of chiseling around the fossil.
Erfoud lies in the heart of Morocco's fossil beds, and the Paleozoic strata here are rife with fossils and diggers waiting to unearth them. Depending on the state of the fossil and the rarity of the specimen, trilobites and other fossils found can earn a few dollars or many thousands. Of course not all the money earned from the sale of a fossil goes to the fossil digger. The industry is filled with middlemen who take a substantial cut from sales and serve as wholesalers at many trade shows in Europe and the United States.
As can be expected, the industry is not without its share of controversy. For one thing, the diggers work in the brutal sun all day long chipping away at rock that may or may not yield fossils. Even though hardcore mining procedures such as the use of dynamite to blow out entire walls of rock are not in place for obvious reasons, accidents related to mining such as rock collapse, are common. The dust that the diggers breathe is also a potential source of harm. Others argue that Morocco should not be exporting its valuable (and finite) geological resources. Nevertheless, the fact that the fossil industry does provide some source of income - albeit a meager living - is one that cannot easily be dismissed.
This article was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the
June 2013 paperback release.
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