8 December 2003

The Archaeology of Maleness Reaches Back ... and Back Again

The emperor Elagabalus appointed ministers in Rome through a competitive appraisal that Edward Gibbon, the 18th century historian of the Roman empire, described delicately as one based on 'enormitate membrorum.'

While this criterion for appointive office may not seem much more absurd than measuring candidates today by the enormousness of their campaign war chests or the telegenicity of their coiffures, it resembles a tiresome male fixation that is now stirring competition in a surprising arena: the staid field of paleontology.

A few months ago Dr. Jason Dunlop, of the Humboldt University in Berlin, announced in the journal Nature that he had found a fossilized penis, indeed 'the oldest fossilized example of such an intromittent organ,' he declared. No matter that it belonged to a minuscule spider-like creature known as a harvestman or daddy long-legs, a mere 6 millimeters in length. The fossil was 400 million years old, and evidently the find gave Dr. Dunlop and his colleagues bragging rights in paleontological circles.

But not for long. In last week's Science, Nature's rival publication, Dr. David J. Siveter of the University of Leicester, says he has found an even older intromittent organ, this one belonging to a minute crustacean known as an ostracode. Though Dr. Siveter's ostracode is only half the size of Dr. Dunlop's harvestman, it is older by 25 million years. This trumped the earlier discovery as the oldest known evidence of definitive maleness - a state that possession of a penis puts beyond doubt.

This rivalry would doubtless have been deeply perplexing to a man like Elagabalus, but in paleontology, age matters.

I am not going to touch this one with a 10-foot pole.

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