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Morocco's Trilobite Economy


By Andrew A. Sicree

This article appeared on pages 34-39 of the March/April 2009 print
edition of Saudi Aramco World.

In 1916, French geologist Louis Gentil walked across the newly
constructed airfield at Casablanca, picked up a fossil trilobite and
kicked off! century of European and American fascination with the
fossils and minerals of Morocco.

Trilobites, like the ones fossilized here, emerged more than 500
million years ago in what’s called “the Cambrian explosion,” a
period when large numbers of novel species with skeletons, eyes and
limbs evolved with remarkable suddenness. Trilobites are so called
because of the three parts, or lobes, of their bodies.

Growing slowly at first, fossil and mineral exports expanded so
rapidly beginning in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that today
more than 50,000 Moroccans earn their livelihoods in the fossil and
mineral specimen mining and export business. Collecting, especially
among youngsters, has gone worldwide, and the us market is the

Fossil exporter Brahim Tahiri of Alnif has built an enterprise that
supports scores of families in the rural Tafilalt region of
southeastern Moroccowhere, he notes, "there are no other jobs."
Tahiri got his start in the fossil business when he was still a
student, working for his older brother Ali. After Ali died in a car
crash in 1999, Brahim stepped up to fill his shoes. Today, the
business he runs with his brothers Mohammed and Yousif provides work
for about 65 fossil-diggers throughout the Tafilalt region, with an
additional two dozen workers employed in the family’s
fossil-preparation “factory” near Erfoud, about 115 kilometers (70
mi) northeast of Alnif. Fossils “prepped” by Tahiri’s employees are
sold throughout Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan.

Fossil- and mineral-diggers have made Morocco famous for its
trilobites and its Orthoceras-rich limestones. Polished slabs of
black limestone streaked with cone-like Orthoceras fossils are sold
as curios or fashioned into coffee tables, ornamental sinks and even
bathtubs. Finely prepared Moroccan trilobites can be found in the
collections of museums great and small, as well as in the homes of
innumerable amateur paleontologists. And the country’s colorful
minerals, such as bright-red vanadinite and silvery skutterudite,
are also the pride of many a great collection worldwide.

Mining normally evokes visions of men digging deep underground for
gold, huge trucks hauling iron ore or limestone boulders being
crushed to manufacture cement. Tonnage is valued in ordinary mining;
delicate crystals and pristine fossils are not.

Moroccan specimen-mining is a delicate, labor-intensive enterprise:
The goal is to find and produce attractive samples that can be sold
as scientific curiosities, or perhaps even as works of artso the
miner strives to harvest his treasures from the ground undamaged.
Dynamite is seldom used. For the teams of men who work in the small
pits and trenches that mark the fossil fields, shovels, picks and
chisels, and perhaps a backhoe, are the tools of choice. It’s hard,
dusty work. Many miners are Berber tribesmen whose families have
deep roots in the region.

Once specimens are cut from the earth, local men clean and prepare
them for sale. In Erfoud, middlemen gather every Thursday and Sunday
to buy the output of the numerous diggers and “preppers.” Around a
hundred different export outfits batch the bulk of Moroccan fossil
and mineral specimens; these are purchased by dealers at the world’s
major fossil and mineral shows, such as those in Tucson, Arizona and
Munich, Germany. Then they are sold in lots of dozens or hundreds to
gift shops in museums and malls.

It is impossible to estimate how many young fossil collectors have
been inspired to take up careers in science by their collections of
Moroccan trilobites. What is certain is that specimen-mining is big
business in Morocco. In 2000, The New York Times Magazine reported
that the fossil trade alone was worth $40 million annually in
Morocco, althoughas in most similar industriesmiddlemen and
retailers see much more profit than diggers and preppers. American
geologist Douglas Shakel has aptly described Morocco’s booming
specimen-mining industry as the “trilobite economy.”

Most Moroccan specimen exporters are often away from home. Tahiri,
for instance, spends one month a year at European exhibitions and
two months in the us, principally in Tucson. There, in late January
and early February each year, some 50 different exhibitions take
place in hotels and tents throughout the city.

Family heritage plays a big role in the export business, says Ahmed
Bouabidi, a fossil and mineral exporter from Midelt, about 200
kilometers (125 mi) north of Erfoud. Bouabidi’s father, a retired
miner, worked in the Mibladen lead mine near Midelt and fostered his
son’s early interest in minerals. The younger Bouabidi earned a
geology degree at Moulay Ismail University in Meknes and got into
the specimen-export business in 1992, working with his cousin.
Bouabidi’s expertise as a geologist enables him to answer customers’
questions about the fossils and minerals he sells at shows in
Tucson; Turin, Italy; Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France; and Munich and
Hamburg. "Mineral and fossil sales are great for Morocco’s economy,"
he says.

For Laheen Boutahar of Beni Mellal, on the edge of the High Atlas
Mountains southwest of Midelt, mineral-specimen exports are a
welcome addition to his family’s regular mining business: Golden
State Mining Company, or gsmc. He and his brothers Ahmed, Mohammed,
Aziz and Hassan operate five mines in the High Atlas Mountains and
the Middle Atlas to the north. They produce lead, copper and zinc
ores, aragonite (used in cement manufacture), selenite (also called
gypsum and used to make plaster) and fluorite (used as a flux in the
steel industry). While working at the mines, diggers also harvest
and prep a variety of mineral specimens for sale to collectors. All
told, the family’s mining- and specimen-exporting operations employ
about 60 workers.

GSMC has two California offices and markets an array of mineral
specimens in America. The list includes bright-green malachite and
deep-blue azurite, silvery cubes of galena, and crystals of calcite,
selenite, aragonite and fluorite.

Of course, European, American and Asian importers also benefit from
Morocco’s trilobite economy. Many have developed a personal
fascination with the country’s fossils and minerals while meeting
the demand for specimens at home, and have come to cherish the
Moroccan people and the country itself.

Most have Moroccan partners; some have Moroccan spouses. Bill
Barker, who owns the Sahara Sea Collection in Tucson, works with
Brahim Tahiri of Alnif. Brian Eberhardie, a major importer of
Moroccan fossils and owner of Moussa Direct in Cambridge, England,
is married to a Moroccan named Mina.

Eberhardie does more than import fossils. When an unusual trilobite
specimen comes to his attention, he contacts a paleontologist such
as Professor Richard Fortey of the Natural History Museum in London.
One of Eberhardie’s discoveries, a trilobite with highly unusual,
tower-like eyes, is named after him: Erbenochile erbeni. Fortey says
that Morocco is home to “three or four hundred” trilobite species.
The Natural History Museum has about a hundred specimens, but hopes
to acquire more.

A few scientists worry that specimen-mining “exploits” Morocco’s
paleontological heritage. Others note that paleontologists have
identified hundreds of species of trilobitesmany new to sciencefrom
finds by miners working the country’s Paleozoic limestones, which
were laid down 245 to 570 million years ago. Without markets to
support Moroccan diggers, a large number of these species would
never have been discovered.

Some Moroccan exporters have also made significant contributions to
science. In addition to exporting fossils, Brahim Tahiri operates
the only private fossil museum in Morocco. The Tahiri Brothers’
Museum of Fossils and Minerals near Erfoud preserves and displays
scientifically important specimens to promote geological education.
Brahim Tahiri’s efforts have been recognized internationally as
paleontologists do: They have named a trilobite, Asteropyge tahiri,
in his honor. (He also has the honor of having a non-trilobite
fossil arthropod, Eoduslia brahimtahiri, named after him.)

Erfoud lies in the heart of Morocco’s fossil beds, and the Paleozoic
strata south of the highway between Erfoud and Alnif are a prime
hunting ground for diggers. Kilometer after kilometer of shallow
trenches have been hand-dug by Berber miners following productive
horizons in their search for trilobites. Diggers crack open rocks
and, when they break into a trilobite fossil, save both halves.
Broken trilobites are taken to prep labs like Brahim Tahiri’s
facility in Erfoud, where they are glued back together. Preppers
then painstakingly chip out the trilobites. Their preferred tool is
a micro-sandblaster.

Few trilobites are found in perfect condition and prepping usually
involves some degree of restoration. Trilobite replicas can be made
from plaster, plastic or auto-body putty, and it can be hard for
amateurs to tell real fossils from replicas.

The price that a trilobite fossil will fetch in the marketplace
depends upon its rarity and condition, the hours spent preparing it
and the quality of the workmanship. In the us, trilobites may retail
for anything from one or two dollars to several thousand, and some
unusual high-quality pieces have sold for more than $20,000. A
similar range of prices applies to mineral specimens.

Morocco’s mineralogical endowment is as unique as its
paleontological heritage. Mines in the world-famous Bou Azzer
district, in the center of the Anti-Atlas Mountains south of
Ouarzazate, produce cobalt and nickel arsenate ores and colorful
mineral specimens favored by collectors. The district lies in a
patch of Precambrian rocks that geologists call a boutonnire
(“buttonhole” in French). Rocks here are very old and have a very
complicated geological history. Immense heat and pressure resulted
in the deposition of ore and mineral veins.

Before the onset of modern mining in the 1930’s, Berber tribesmen in
the Bou Azzer region chipped out small amounts of arsenic-containing
rocks from the cobalt-nickel veins to sell in the Marrakesh suq as
rat poison. French prospectors came across the veins in 1928 and the
Bou Azzer Mine opened soon after that. As it played out, prospectors
identified other ore veins nearby, which were also mined. The
region’s rich geological history produced such stunning mineral
specimens as erythrite, a violet-red cobalt-arsenate, and
skutterudite, a bright silvery cobalt arsenide. More than 120
different mineral species have been found at Bou Azzer, and the
district even has an arsenic mineral named after it: bouazzerite.

Who benefits most from Morocco’s mineral-specimen mining and its
trilobite economy? Thousands of Moroccans earn a living in the
industry. But the results of their work bedazzle and educate
collectors, especially schoolchildren, around the globe. “Children
know only about cartoon dinosaurs,” says Houcein Mribiha, who hails
from Khenifra on the edge of Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountain range
and enjoys selling fossils in America. “But, if their parents buy
Moroccan fossils, they can learn about geology firsthand.”