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Unearthing History: The Dino Dig Experience at Southwestern Adventist University

a diverse group of men stand in front of Mount Rushmore

Photo: Emeraude Victorin Tobias, Geoscience Research Institute

For many, the pull of uncovering ancient relics and the mysteries of the past is an irresistible draw. Southwestern Adventist University (SWAU) offers a unique opportunity to step back in time with its Dino Dig Experience, a dinosaur excavation research project in the Lance Formation of eastern Wyoming, United States. This program, held annually in June, brings together students, families, and international participants to uncover and study dinosaur fossil remains.

An Educational Adventure 

The Dino Dig Experience is not just a summer activity but an accredited course students at SWAU can take for academic credit. The hands-on experience in the field provides a practical extension to classroom learning, allowing students to apply theoretical knowledge in a real-world setting. The excavation site offers an unparalleled opportunity to study Cretaceous dinosaur bones in their natural context.

Smiling Black man at an excavation site

Fabian Pitkin, Chair of the Medical Technology Department at Northern Caribbean University, uncovers the femur of an Edmontosaurus during the recent excavation. Photo: Keith Snyder, Chair of Biology / Allied Health at Southern Adventist University

Families with children also flock to the dig site, eager to share the excitement of discovery. This inclusive approach allows participants of all ages to engage with science tangibly, fostering a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world.

An International Gathering

The Dino Dig Experience was a global affair this year, featuring eight international participants from Brazil, Chile, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Kenya, and Mexico. Among them was Nelson Llempen, a recent geology graduate from the University of Concepción in Chile. Nelson's journey to the Dino Dig is a testament to the power of passion and perseverance.

a casually dressed smiling Hispanic man sitting among rocks

Nelson Llempen proudly displays the ilium of an Edmontosaurus he discovered, contributing to Southwestern’s ongoing paleontological research. Photo: Bradley Andersen, senior high school student

Nelson has long been fascinated by dinosaurs and geology, a passion nurtured from childhood. He grew up reading books, which fueled his desire to understand how the biblical account of creation aligns with geological findings. His dedication led to extensive research and the Dino Dig Experience through a Faith and Science Council sponsorship.

Nelson Llempen's Path to the Dino Dig 

Nelson's journey began with an online conference for teachers in South America, which he attended despite not being a teacher himself but a geology student. He saw this as an opportunity to connect with Dr. Raul Esperante, a paleontologist from the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Nelson paid close attention to the conference and actively participated in the Q&A session, which led to an invitation to an online forum. This forum opened doors for further opportunities, including research trips to Bolivia and Brazil.

In August 2023, Nelson completed a three-week internship at the GRI, which solidified his aspirations. A lifelong fan of geology and dinosaurs, Nelson found a mentor in Dr. Esperante, who encouraged him to join the Dino Dig Experience and apply for one of the Faith and Science Council scholarships for international participants. Nelson's background in studying dinosaur and bird footprints provided a unique perspective, which he felt could contribute to the excavation.

Two men and a boy at an excavation site.

Francisle Souza, representative of the Geoscience Research Institute for the South American division, and Henock Adem, English teacher at Akaki Adventist School in Ethiopia, show off the ulna bone of an Edmontosaurus, highlighting their latest find. Photo provided by Francisle Souza 

Bridging Faith and Science

For Nelson, the Dino Dig Experience is more than just an opportunity to unearth fossil bones; it is also a chance to reconcile his scientific pursuits with his faith. Raised as an Adventist, Nelson has always been interested in how geological evidence can be harmonized with the biblical narrative. The Dino Dig provides a platform for him to explore these questions in a community that shares his values and interests.

Nelson's goals for the Dino Dig are twofold. First, he aims to gain hands-on experience in the techniques of preservation and restoration of dinosaur bones, skills that are essential for a career in paleontology. Second, he wants to deepen his understanding of sedimentology and the history of life on Earth from a biblical paradigm.

A Collaborative Effort 

The Dino Dig Experience is also a hub for networking and collaboration. Participants like Nelson have the chance to work alongside experienced scientists and fellow enthusiasts, sharing ideas and forging connections that can lead to future research opportunities. Nelson sees this as a vital aspect of the program, emphasizing the need for more outreach and collaboration in creationism.

The shared passion among participants fosters an environment of mutual support and learning. Nelson hopes to contribute his knowledge of rocks and sediments to the team, enhancing their understanding of the fossils they uncover. This collaborative spirit advances scientific knowledge and strengthens the bond between participants.

a smiling black man holding a bone on an excavation site

Duncan Mumbo, Chaplain of the University of Eastern Africa in Baraton, Kenya, is pictured holding a pubis bone. Photo: Francisle Souza, representative of the Geoscience Research Institute for the South American Division

Looking to the Future 

As Nelson prepares to start his master's degree in Geology at Loma Linda University this fall, he reflects on the Dino Dig Experience as a pivotal moment in his academic and spiritual journey. The program has provided him with invaluable field experience, deepened his understanding of geological processes, and connected him with a network of like-minded individuals.

The Dino Dig Experience at SWAU is more than just an excavation project; it is a transformative adventure that brings together people from diverse backgrounds to uncover the past, explore scientific questions from a biblical foundation, and build a community of faith and learning. For participants like Nelson Llempen, it is a stepping-stone to a future where their passions and beliefs coexist and thrive.

This article was provided by the Faith and Science Council of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.