14-year-old finds New Zealand’s oldest fossils

14 January 1948

Trilobite limestone found by Malcolm Simpson (School of Environment, University of Auckland)

In 1948, a 14-year-old Nelson schoolboy discovered the oldest fossils ever found in New Zealand. Malcolm Simpson was a member of the party that accompanied University of Otago geologist Noel Benson on an expedition to Cobb Valley, near Motueka.

During the trip, Simpson hammered off some fresh limestone containing indistinct fossils and passed it to Professor Benson, who initially considered the fossils to be indistinguishable molluscan remains.

After returning to Dunedin, Benson discovered the samples contained trilobites – a fossil group of extinct marine arthropods. Intrigued, he sent them to the Geological Survey of Great Britain for identification. Three months later, an excited Benson telephoned Simpson to let him know that they were Cambrian fossils from the Paleozoic era (542–251 million years ago) – making them the oldest rocks yet found in New Zealand.

In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the find, the Geological Society of New Zealand awarded Simpson the Wellman Prize for his contribution to palaeontology.

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