‘I’d like to see how the cavemen got on with the dinosaurs…’

October 22, 2008 05:06 by Kate Phillips

Trying to visualise ane million years I a created a document with one million dots. Here is one page – it  takes 96 pages like this to hold one million dots.  

When we did some evaluation of ideas for exhibitions and talked about dinosaurs, only one out of the forty adults we interviewed said they would like to see how the dinosaurs and cavemen lived together (think ‘The Flintstones’), but that one was enough to remind me that not everyone has a scientific appreciation of the sequence of life on earth, let alone the mind-bogglingly long time periods over which happened. I’m only just getting comfortable with the idea of a million years myself. 

To get a mental image of one million, I created a word document with one million dots on it. I made the dots as small as possible and they covered the page – you can only just see them as separate dots. The document is 96 pages long, so I’ve only ever printed out one page. It was an interesting exercise! 

600 million years ago  (that is 600 000 000) is the time span for one of the new exhibitions. We start with the dawn of animal life (i.e. multicellular organisms) and end with the relative recent megafauna which became extinct a mere 40 000 years ago, or 0.04 million years ago. While I still struggle with these time spans, the palaeontologists and geologists at the museum think effortlessly in millions of years. 

I remember watching a documentary about Thylacaleo, or ‘marsupial lion’. A perfectly preserved 1 million-year-old skeleton was found in a cave in the Nullarbor. The animal probably fell into the cave and died. Then gradually dried out and remained undisturbed for one million years to be discovered by some intrepid cavers a few years ago. Just lying there for one million years …quite astounding really. But to my geologist friends here at the museum, that isn’t old, a mere million years – hardly any time at all…