Exploring Ancient Fossil Records in Dagestan

History

Written by Corey Shepherd

November 10, 2021

Streams and rivers without number cut through the ravines of Dagestan’s sharp mountain peaks. Crouching down next to any one of them, Omar Hapisov can lift a rock from the riverbed and identify the geological layers of rock in the steep ridges above him. He’s been searching these rock layers since he was a boy, always in search of some unique fossil discovery.

Dagestanis are by nature concerned about the preservation of their culture and traditions. They hold tightly to the ways of their ancestors. But no one is reaching further back into Dagestani history than Omar. He has made it his life’s focus to search for, collect and share with others the fossil record of his native Dagestan.

The Ichthyosaurus is a dolphin-like dinosaur from the Jurassic period.

Sharks Teeth and Dinosaurs

By profession Omar – an Avar from the Levanshinsky region of Dagestan – is a beekeeper, a shepherd and a carpenter. But what he is passionate about is paleontology. “Nature has preserved for us what God created,” he said. “Our task is to love that nature and look closely in order to find the gifts left behind for us.”

In his self-constructed museum, he displays thousands of fossils that he and a small group of friends have found in their home region of Levanshinsky and from mountainous areas throughout Dagestan. To survey the shelves of Omar’s museum is to be taken deep into the history of Dagestan. Among the fossils are shark teeth, thousands of massive nautiluses, perfectly preserved fish, 4-foot-long sea turtle flippers, and even a nearly fully intact Ichthyosaurus – like a dolphin but dinosauric with big teeth – geologists say is from the early Jurassic period.

Dagestan is an exceptional terrain for paleontology, as the Tethys Sea that once covered much of Eurasia also covered Dagestan. Due to geological shifting in the subterranean plates, the Caucasus mountain range slowly rose from the area just west of what is now the Caspian Sea.

In the small area of Dagestan, which is about the size of the state of Tennessee, low foothills rise from the steppe climbing all the way to the highest peaks of central Dagestan in excess of 3000 meters. As this shifting occurred, layers of sediment were left behind that held fossil records from many different periods of geological development. According to Omar, there are few places in the world where so many different periods of geological history can be studied in such a concentrated geographic area.

Nature has preserved for us what God created

The entrance to Omar’s paleontology museum.

Omar’s Origin Story

Omar said that he has been collecting fossils since he was six or seven years old. “I ruined many shoes climbing the mountains around my village.” He would store his ancient treasures in his wardrobe, but his parents would often scold him for collecting what they called “too many rocks.”

Omar eventually gave up his childhood hobby but picked it up again when the internet finally reached the mountains about 15 years ago. He started to read about paleontological work in other parts of the world and found time to explore when he was tending his beehives in the hills outside of his village. “I began to realize my childhood dream with the appearance of the internet,” he said.

The internet gave him access to information about paleontology, and he devoured everything he could find on the subject. As Omar takes you on a guided tour of his museum, you wouldn’t know that he is self-taught. He handles information about geologic epochs, dates and Latin classifications with ease. Credentialed scientists from Moscow have confirmed the veracity and significance of Omar’s findings, and an entire journal published by professional Russian paleontologists is devoted to classifying Omar’s work. Scientists occasionally come to his small village to study the fossils he has collected, and he’s even building a small guest house next door to the museum to more suitably host them.

A nearly perfectly preserved fish fossil from the mountains of Dagestan

Omar found this 4-foot long ancient sea turtle flipper near his home in Dagestan

Something to Build On

Word about Omar’s museum has spread beyond the scientific community. Mini buses full of tourists stop to tour the museum, and these visits help Omar pay for his otherwise self-funded work. When asked why he invests so much time in his hobby, Omar’s desire to preserve the history of his country is clear.

“Money that I could spend on my kids or other things – for the sake of Dagestan, for the future history of Dagestan, I sacrifice on this [the museum],” he said. “What I have done is a foundation for others in the future to develop … may others take it further than I have.”

The key resting on top of this ancient Ammonite fossil shows the impressive size of these now extinct sea creatures. Ammonites are the most numerous species in Omar’s collection

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