The Okamura Fossil Laboratory

By April 29, 2023Science, Society

Deep in the basement recesses of the library at Geoscience Australia is a journal entitled Original Reports of the Okamura Fossil Laboratory1. Decades ago, these were sent, unsolicited, to the library and were catalogued and put on the shelves with all the thousands of books and journals on geoscience and related topics. The Okamura Laboratory reports are large format, glossy productions and must have cost a considerable amount to produce. I gather they were sent, similarly unsolicited, to many libraries and educational institutions around the world.

The Okamura Fossil Laboratory was set up in Nagoya, Japan, by Chonosuke Okamura (1901-1990s?), an amateur palaeontologist when in his 70s. Okamura reported finding fossil remains of thousands of different species of mini-creatures2. He published an entire micro­world including plants, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, demonstrating that these organisms, all of them between 1 mm and 5 mm in size, existed during the Silurian period (~425 million years ago) in Japan. For instance, he noted that humans were then only 3.5 mm tall, but had otherwise been much the same as they are now. According to his interpretation, vertebrate life began in the Silurian with miniature versions of modern genera, and he named numerous subspecies of modern species, such as Gorilla gorilla minilorientalisCanis familiaris minilorientalisHomo sapiens minilorientalesPteradactylus spectabilis minilorientalisBrontosaurus excelus minilorientalus, as well as a fossil miniduck, Archaeoanas japonica. In one of the most bizarre interpretations, he recognised the severed head of a mini-human in the alimentary canal of a mini-dinosaur.All of the observations he made are attributable to pareidolia*; what he actually observed in the polished limestone slabs were fossilised foraminifera and other fragmentary fossils, commonly corals3.

Okamura’s ‘research’ earned him the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize in biodiversity4. The Ig Nobel Prize is a satirical prize awarded annually by the Annals of Improbable Research to celebrate unusual or trivial ‘achievements’ in scientific research5. He has been the subject of an article in the Annals6.

Okamura’s interpretations are fantastic in that they come from the world of fantasy and bear no resemblance to reality. However, they are a hoot to read.

*Pareidolia: This is the tendency for perception to impose a meaningful interpretation on a nebulous stimulus, usually visual, so that one sees an object, pattern, or meaning where there is none. Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, seeing faces in inanimate objects. The concept of pareidolia may extend to include hidden messages in recorded music played in reverse or at different speeds7.




  • Clive Calver says:

    Sounds like Randolph Kirkpatrick, who saw Nummulites everywhere, including in igneous rocks, meteorites, etc. and wrote a book about it (The Nummulosphere). Perhaps palaeontology has more than its share of pareidolia sufferers.

    • admin says:

      Quite likely. What we do is look at bits of shells of organisms and try to fit them into patterns (form species) we see published elsewhere; if not, we construct our own concept and publish that. The trick is knowing what we have and what we don’t have; and not extending that concept beyond reality.

    • Arthur Baker says:

      Clive, you are right to describe those afflicted with pareidolia as “sufferers”. Pareidolia is a sub-type of apophenia. Look it up in Wikipedia, it’s really appalling: “can be a symptom of psychiatric dysfunction, for example, as a symptom in paranoid schizophrenia, where a patient sees hostile patterns (for example, a conspiracy to persecute them) in ordinary actions”.

      I’ve witnessed this, occasionally, in online forums, where a commenter draws attention to an obvious (and relatively trivial) elementary error, then the original poster sees himself as under attack or victimised in some way, and goes ballistic, lashing out, accusing the commenter of “abuse”, and (when able) wiping out not only the commenter’s adverse comments but everything else he ever wrote.

      Apophenia is a very serious affliction, and to those who are suffering from it, I send you all my best wishes in your treatment and hopefully recovery.

      • admin says:

        You cannot help yourself, can you? You still haven’t remonstrated to those powerful journalists who did precisely the same thing as me, have you? Yet, you went on for months about it. That is what is weird. That is the sort of thing bullies do.

      • JON says:

        Speaking of hostile patterns. Are you intending to taint every second post with the same old gripe Arthur?

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