My friend Jia Gooptu is on her way to becoming a fine palaeontologist. For those too young to remember the Late Cretaceous period or the early episodes of Friends, a palaeontologist studies forms of life that existed in prehistoric times by investigating their fossils.
At three-and-a-half, Ms Gooptu can not only identify dinosaurs by looking at their reconstructed pictures but she can also name them by looking at pictures of their skeletons. So last week, when I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the moment I walked into the giant lobby that displays a set of three dinosaur skeletons, I thought of her.
But it was quite some time into my trip inside the museum, on the fourth floor and with some 20 minutes remaining before closing time that I came face to face with an awesome — in its original sense of inspiring a sense of unadulterated awe — item on display in one of the museum’s legendary four fossil halls. It wasn’t the mounted bones of a tyrannosaurus rex (a favourite of Ms Gooptu’s). Hanging from a white wall near the ceiling was a giant pair of hands belonging to a Deinocheirus mirificus.
I’m not very good with measurements, but the pair of gigantic limbs that were some 8.5 feet long from shoulder blades to claws, hung above me as if its only function was to grab me and then proceed to lift me towards an invisible mouth. The mind’s eye quickly fills in what is absent. So it was clear to me that the missing animal whose bones I was staring at was once at least two storeys tall. This was Godzilla in the bones.
The hands of the Deinocheirus mirificus — literally ‘terrible hands’ — had been dug up in the late 60s-early 70s in Southern Mongolia by Polish-Mongolian palaeontologists. Nothing else of the animal was found or has been found ever since. Carbon dating placed the giant’s age at 72 million years. Upon pressing a touchscreen I heard palaeontologist and museum curator Mark Norell explain how
the Deinocheirus (pronounced ‘dine-oh-kir-us’) was most probably a gentle herbivore.
A gentle herbivore? This gigantic thing that stretches from an immensely powerful pair of shoulders, going down along what appears like a pair of broken hands to end in two giant three-fingered claws?! Apparently Deinocheiri used their large forelimbs and claws to pull down branches and munch on leaves. Whatever.
Standing with my jaw nearly hitting the ground, I saw the Deinocheirus’ hands as much more than just the remnants of a giant beast that once roamed the Earth. The hands were that of a glorious monster who reminds us that size does matter. (The black steel and glass monolithic beauty of the Seagram Building by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in midtown Manhattan inspired a similar jaw-dropping response.) The giant hands with terrible claws also conjured up in my head images of ‘handless’ icons.
They could have been the pair transformed and gargoyled once chipped off from the 2nd century BC ‘Venus de Milo’ statue in the Louvre in Paris, a study of aesthetic perfection because — and not despite — of her armlessness. The monstrous arms could also have been those of Thakur’s in Sholay, again metamorphosed into long monstrous limbs after Gabbar cut them down (“Bahut taakat hai tere haath mein, Thakur, bahut taakat hai”; You have so much strength in your arms, Thakur, so much strength”). Or they could have belonged to the headless, armless 2nd century statue of King Kanishka in the Mathura Museum.
I await Dr Jia Gooptu’s opinion on ‘terrible hands’ in the not too distant future.