Forty to Sixty million years ago, when the earth
was much wetter, and warmer, huge forests
with many kinds of trees thrived in the far
north. Out of some of these trees, stretching as
tall as ten story buildings, oozed a sticky resin.
Mosquitoes buzzed through the forest,
grasshoppers and crickets leaped,and ants and
spiders scurried by the trees in search of food.
If they carelessly let a leg or wing touch the
resin-zap! They were stuck, preserved like
mummies in an airtight trap.
Millions of years passed, and the climate of the
earth altered dramatically. The north lands
turned cold and icy. The giant trees fell, buried
under the salt water that now covered the land.
Far beneath the water, the globes of resin
slowly changed, hardening into solid, glowing
pieces of amber. Still millions of years later,
storms at sea broke the amber free and tossed
it onto beaches for early cave dwellers to find.
The cave dwellers wondered if the strange
golden stone, warm to the touch, could be solid
sunlight. Using flint and bone tools, they carved
pieces of amber into the shapes of animals or
the sun and wore them on cords around their
necks for magical protection. When early
Chinese people found amber the color of tiger
stripes, they believed it held the souls of dead
tigers and they treasured it as a source of
For hundreds of years, people used amber in
jewelry or to decorate warriors’ weapons; some
soldiers braided amber beads in their horses’
manes to ensure success in battle. Amber was
also ground fine and mixed with honey, oil of
roses, and crab’s eyes or claws for use as
medicine. Amber mixtures were believed to
cure earaches, headaches, and any number of
diseases. As amber became more valuable sea
traders making money on the precious
commodity protected their routes by inventing
stories of the golden substance.
Some of the oldest pieces of amber are mined
in Appalachia, in the eastern United States. The
Baltic seacoast also has large deposits. But the
Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean, yields
the most pieces with inclusions of insects,
leaves, feathers, and other remains of life.
Some pieces of amber have air bubbles inside
that keep the light from passing through,
making it look cloudy, but many pieces are
clear like glass. The pieces of amber with
inclusions of early life or gas bubbles are the
most valuable to scientists. They hold clues
about the earth’s ecology millions of years ago
and enable scientists to compare early life
forms with today’s.
More than a thousand kinds of insects have
been found preserved in amber, from
prehistoric flies that proved to be the ancestors
of our houseflies to a 140-million-year-old
weevil that lived at the time of the dinosaurs.
Scientists use x-rays to study skeletons of frogs
and lizards, seeds inside fruits, and other
inclusion without opening the amber.
They also scan the surface of ancient
mummified insects with electron microscopes,
revealing such detail as preserved muscle
fibers and the spinning glands of trapped
spiders, In addition scientists can extract DNA
directly from an amber inclusion. Amber is the
only known fossil from which ancient DNA can
be recovered. Many natural history museums
have pieces of amber on display. Look for them
on your next visit. These golden traps, 40 or
more million years old, are the closest thing we
have to snapshots o four ancient past.