Kalasin’s dinosaur footprints

Kalasin’s dinosaur footprints

text and pictures@Sjon Hauser — posted February 2018

Figure 1. Phu Faek Forest Park, Kalasin.

Following the international success of one of their compatriots or an important discovery or event taking place on Thai soil, the people of Thailand are often spell-bound by a kind of ‘nationalist-flavored excitement’. For example, in 1987, a ‘Thai’ beauty named Pornthip, was crowned Miss Universe, and for weeks, or months, Pornthipmania reigned the kingdom. Pornthip wasn’t just a beautiful and ‘intelligent’ woman, she was exemplary for all imaginable Thai virtues, that contribute to the greatness of the Thai race. Chaiyo!
When a Thai boxer beats up his opponent to gain a gold medal, the euphoric praise for the champion also gets strong nationalist sentiments as soon as his hands (in gloves) are raised in the air and Thai men from the champ’s camp enter the ring to swing Thai flags and raise a large portrait of the Thai monarch—leaving no doubt to the billion or so worldwide spectators that the gold medalist is Thai. In the excitement that follows, not only the qualities of the champion are praised, but again and again it is emphasized that he or she is from the great Thai breeding stock and from the even greater Thai cultural realms (which in the case of Pornthip was only partially true as her father was American and she was predominantly raised in the United States).
In a similar vein, important discoveries on Thai soil may stir strong nationalist sentiments. In the 1970s and 1980s, excavations in Ban Chiang in the northeastern region were of great archeological importance, and they were evidence for the early cultivation of rice and the early domestication of the water buffalo in that part of the world. But in the excitement that followed their importance was soon blown up and interpreted as evidence that Thailand (instead of China) was the cradle of rice culture. Moreover, the bronze implements found at the sites of Ban Chiang were soon promoted as the oldest of such artifacts ever found in the world (despite the uncertainties involved with C14 dating) and seen as proof that Thailand was the cradle of the bronze culture. Both China and Anatolia/Mesopotamia were believed to be ‘beaten’ on the ‘archaeological battlefield’ of Ban Chiang. Interestingly, human skeletons unearthed at the Ban Chiang sites were a little larger than the skeletons of present day Thais, and some therefore concluded that modern Thai descended from ‘giants’—a silly thought, as there has been evidence from various disciplines that the ‘Thai race’ originated in China and had not migrated into present day Thailand before about 1000 AD, which implies that the large skeletons were almost certainly not Thai at all. (By the way: this migration from China to Thailand is usually hailed as proof of the ‘Thai love of freedom’, a character believed to be intrinsic to the Thai race.)

Since the 1970s, many fossilized bones of dinosaurs were discovered in Thailand, most of them in the northeastern region, and the significance of these discoveries were acknowledged all over the world. Although this resulted in outbursts of dinosaurmania (short: dinomania), especially in the Northeast where cement dinosaurs were erected in front of town halls and schools and in public and private gardens (where they soon outnumbered the exotic zebras and giraffes), the fossil reptiles from Thai soil never stirred Thai nationalism in the way beauty queens or pugilists did. Thai dinomania was fun and coincided with the waves of dinomania that conquered the world following Steven Spielberg’s classic movies Jurassic Park I and II.


Figure 2A. Excavation at Phu Kum Khao (Hill) in Kalasin’s Sahatsakhan District, 1996.

However, it is no exaggeration to state that Thailand has become one of the world’s most important graveyards of dinosaur fossils. Not only belonged many of the Thai dinosaurs to species new to science, they also provided scientists with data that led to new insights on continental drift over the past 200 million years, e.g. the time span during which parts of Gondwanaland broke off, drifted away, and at last collided and fused with the supercontinent Laurasia. Moreover, some of the fossils are truly amazing, such as the in 1995 unearthed Siamotyrannus isanensis, believed to be the oldest known relative of the fearsome, infamous Tyrannosuarus rex.
At present (2018), at least five museums in Thailand have exhibitions of the fossilized bones and models of Thai dinosaurs.
Best known sites of the fossil heritage are Phu Wiang in Khon Kaen Province, Phu Kum Khao in Kalasin’s Sahatsakhan District, and a site in Nakhon Ratchasima Province. Nearly all fossilized bones and footprints of the ancient reptiles originated from the Isan, but bones unearthed in Chiang Muan District, are evidence that dinosaurs also roamed the northern province of Phayao.
Dinomania in Thailand peaked in 1996 and 1997, following discoveries in Kalasin Province. E.g., in those years, the Bangkok Post published at least three main articles on dinosaurs within a few months, all focusing on the Thai geologist Varuvudh Suteethorn who was involved with the excavations.

In 1996 I headed for Kalasin to bring a visit to a little excavation site near a local temple, Wat Sakawan, at the foot of a hill in Sahatsakhan District. Two years earlier, the abbot of the temple had stumbled over a piece of bone while supervising the construction of a road. More than 630 pieces of bone of at least six dinosaurs had been excavated during the following years. The memory of this trip to Sahatsakhan, twenty years ago, is still fresh, as the trip inspired me to write a column about the Thais dinosaurs for the travel section of de Volkskrant, a major Dutch newspaper (later rewritten for my website, see: Dinosauriërs in Kalasin – in Dutch).

Figure 2B. A-B. Reconstructions of Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae at Phu Kum Khao (Hill) in Kalasin’s Sahatsakhan District. C. View from the hill.

At the main excavation site near the temple a rather complete skeleton of a Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae (a large herbivorous dinosaur that was named in honor of Thailand’s Princess Sirindhorn) had been uncovered. A fence had been erected around the site to prevent locals to plunder it. Many pieces of bone had been chopped off from the skeleton that protruded from the rocks. Magic Buddha amulets made from dinosaur-bone were in high demand and could fetch prizes of 50 Euro or more, as it was rumored that a man had cured his terminally-ill mother with such an amulet.
On my visit, a bus load of tumultuous students from a primary school were throwing 50 satang coins through the fence into the graveyard. Thais are fascinated by ancient and bizarre objects, which are believed to be home of spirits or to possess saksit (magic powers). And in order to please these supernatural forces, they offer small coins. Alms bowls had been placed in the graveyard as receptacles for the coins thrown in their direction. One bowl was connected with the fence by means of a broad PVC-pipe for those who did not want to spill their money on the rocks—visitors could send their coins through the pipe into the alms bowl. However, for the young students throwing their coins through the fence was the high light of their excursion.
As soon as they spotted the solitary farang (white-skinned foreigner), their attention was shifted to him, and for at least a quarter of an hour I was engulfed by children who wanted their picture taken in my company. Given my popularity as a model, I was considered even more exotic and strange than the 18 meter skeleton.

Twenty years later, June 2017, I was at the hill again. A cemented road led uphill and circumvented the hill. Along the path I came across three cement statues of the Phuwiangosaurus erected near former excavation pits. But most of the fossils and reconstructed dinosaurs were to be seen in the nearby Sirindhorn Museum—Kalasin’s top attraction. As the museum was closed that day, I rescheduled my trip and headed for an open air site where the Thai ancestors of Tyrannosaurus rex had left their foot prints in the rocks.

The Phu Faek Forest Park is in Kalasin’s Huai Phueng District, about 50 km from the Sirindhorn Museum in Sahatsakhan. When I arrived at the park, it appeared that I was the only person at the site, but a little later I met two park rangers who were sweeping the area at the entrance free of shed leaves. Nearby a building was under construction, probably to become another dinosaur museum.

Figure 3. The entrance of the Phu Faek Forest Park.

Figure 4. A. B. C. Reconstructions of Siamotyrannus isanensis at the Phu Faek Forest Park, Huai Phueng District, Kalasin.

Figure 5. Petrified wood from the Phu Kradueng formation, about 150 myo.

In front of the construction site, two life size statues of the Siamotyrannus isanensis looked quite bloodthirsty, despite their relatively modest size. This possible ancestor of the giant Tyrannosaurus rex that lived 140 million years ago, at least 10 million years before its giant successor. Another attraction were the petrified tree trunks found at the hill and originating from the 150 million year old Phu Kradueng formation.
To get to the famous foot prints I had to follow a path through the deciduous forest. After 200 m or so I came to the sand stone bed of a small stream flanked by low bamboo. Slabs of sandstone had been eroded off the main rocks and lay scattered throughout the stream bed. It was easy to spot the three famous, regularly spaced prints of the clawed toes of Siamotyrannus isanensis, the most feared carnosaur (carnivorous dinosaur) of its time.

Figure 6. The stream bed with sand stone slabs.

A painted sign near the site informs the visitor that the footprints are about 140 million years old and were discovered in November 1996, during the dinomania years, by two girls aged ten and eleven.

Figure 7. The footprints of Siamotyrannus isanensis in the sandstone of the stream bed at the Phu Faek Forest Park.

©SJON HAUSER: TEKST EN FOTO’S

Sources

Boonchai, N., P. J. Grote and P. Jintasakul, 2009. Paleontological parks and museums and
prominent fossil sites in Thailand and their importance in the conservation of fossils. In: J. H. Lipps and B. R. C. Granier (eds.), PaleoParks — The protection and conservation of fossil sites worldwide, p. 75-95. Notebooks on Geology, Brest.

Buffetaut, Eric, and Rucha Ingavat, 1985. The Mesozoic Vertebrates of Thailand. Scientific American, August 1985, 253(2): 64-70.

Rithee, Kong, 1997. Thailand’s dinosaur man. The Sunday Magazine (Bangkok Post), 23-29 March, 1997.

Trakullertsathien, Chompoo, 1996. In the footsteps of a dinosaur. Outlook (Bangkok Post), 23 December 1996.

Trakullertsathien, Chompoo, 1997. The dinoman of Siam. Outlook (Bangkok Post), 14 March, 1997