Taking a Prehistoric Road Trip

I recently had the pleasure of watching the three-part PBS miniseries Prehistoric Road Trip. It’s hosted by Emily Graslie, a science educator affiliated with the Chicago Field Museum. I wasn’t familiar with her before this, but you might know her from projects like her YouTube series, “The Brain Scoop.” Graslie is a delightfully energetic, goofy, nerdy, and thoughtful host, and the show thrives off her charisma as she interacts with a variety of paleontologists throughout the series.

Over the course of the three episodes, Graslie takes us on, well, a Prehistoric Road Trip across Great Plains states to see a variety of fossil collections, active dig sites, and other unique locations that represent millions of years of geologic and paleontological history. What sets this show apart from the dozens of other shows about paleontology and prehistoric creatures is that it is firmly centered on contemporary subjects, showcasing a wide range of modern-day researchers, highlighting interesting areas of current research, and discussing issues that I just haven’t really seen in any similar shows. Some of these interesting issues included the relationship between scientists and landowners, the historic colonialist abuses of mineral and scientific natural resources on indigenous lands and current efforts to reverse those trends, and how studies of past climate change show how unique and dangerous the current man-made climate change event is.

We still get to see a lot of cool prehistoric animals, plants, and even bacteria, but the view is more focused on the fossils themselves (although there are some beautiful still reconstructions along the way in the form of sketches and mounts), ranging from freshly discovered in the ground to mounted in museum displays. Along the way, there’s plenty of opportunity for the layperson to learn about how fossils are discovered and prepared, how decisions are made about what to do with fossils, how fossils can be valuable in different types of research, and even how anyone can volunteer to participate in digs. We get a little bit of the history of paleontology in the American West along the way.

It was really cool to hear from a range of voices that most people probably haven’t heard from before. The number of female and indigenous voices was especially cool, given how paleontology has often seemed to be a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men in the past.

Each episode is a little under an hour, and there are only three. If you have even the slightest interest in paleontology or prehistoric creatures, you should check this out. If you’re a layperson paleontology fan like myself, I feel confident you’ll learn at least one new thing and will have a lot of fun along the way!

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