Q&A: Did dinosaurs and humans coexist, as controversial Sask. textbook claims? We asked an expert

After the history of dinosaurs surfaced because of questionable assertions from an independent school curriculum in Saskatchewan, CBC spoke to a paleontologist to get the facts.

Loch Ness monster, cited by text as proof that dinosaurs still exist, also a myth: paleontologist

A controversial curriculum from a Saskatchewan private school has caused the issue of dinosaur history — specifically the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs — to surface. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

Dinosaur history has been a hot topic in the Saskatchewan Legislature, leading the provincial education minister and Opposition critic to spar over the questionable facts of an independent curriculum.

The debate surfaced after former students of Saskatoon's Legacy Christian Academy demanded its curriculum — called Accelerated Christian Education, or ACE — be banned.

The government opposition read from a biology textbook used at an independent Saskatchewan school that read, in part, "scientific evidence tends to support the idea that men and dinosaurs existed at the same time."

The Loch Ness monster was also referenced in the textbook read by the Opposition as "proof that dinosaurs still exist today."

When CBC requested to speak with a paleontologist from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum to clear that up, that request was routed through to the education minister's office, which said the minister wasn't available — even though he was not the person CBC asked to talk to.

Instead, Stefani Langenegger, host of CBC's The Morning Edition, spoke with paleontologist Graham Young, a curator of geology and paleontology at the Manitoba Museum.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What do we know about when dinosaurs walked the earth?

A: Dinosaurs inhabited the planet for a very long time, from about 230 million years ago to about 66 million years ago. So, well over 100 million years: far longer than the time since they became extinct.

How do we know that?

We're able to do very good age dating on rocks using a variety of methods. Of course, dinosaurs are in sedimentary rocks, but sedimentary rocks, especially in geologically active regions, often have volcanic layers in them and you can date the age of a volcanic rock or an ash using chemicals in it.

LISTEN | A paleontologist from the Manitoba Museum on dinosaur history and importance of proper education
We tried to ask a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum about this, but the government replied to say the education minister was not available. So we head out of province to talk with a paleontologist from Manitoba.

What do we know about human evolution relative to when dinosaurs were around?

They're getting to know quite a lot about human evolution because there's been such a focus on it but it depends how you define "human." We're homo sapiens.

So our first relatives who belong to that group of species are from right about two million years ago. So to contrast, the last dinosaurs were 33 times as long ago as the first human relatives.

When children in Saskatchewan have a textbook that says biblical and scientific evidence seems to indicate that men and dinosaurs lived at the same time, what do you think?

I'm not going to talk about biblical evidence, that's far outside my area of expertise, and I'm not going to involve myself in Saskatchewan politics, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence for that.

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina recently celebrated Dinovember by having an augmented reality model of Scotty the T. rex available by scanning a QR code. (Submitted by Marc Toews )

That same textbook says that a creationist scientist in Texas found some fossilized footprints of dinosaurs and human footprints. Have you heard of that?

Yeah, that's been something that's been going on for many decades.

Basically, there's a dinosaur trackway site in Texas and it seems that people have periodically added human footprints to that by carving them in and there's been some quite detailed analysis that shows that any of the so-called human footprints there do not have the characteristics of fossil footprints.

Fossil footprints deform sediment, so the human footprints are something someone wishfully added.

What do we know about the Loch Ness monster?

We know quite a lot. The Loch Ness monster is something that developed from old myths and, in the 20th century, apparently from hoaxes.

North Americans may not realize Loch Ness is not a huge lake by our standards. It's not like Lake Winnipeg, it's not an expanse of water, it's a long narrow lake and if there was anything that was at all like a plesiosaur in there, it would be observed on a daily basis.

A view of the Loch Ness Monster, near Inverness, Scotland, April 19, 1934. The photograph, one of two pictures known as the 'surgeon's photographs,' was allegedly taken by Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson, though it was later exposed as a hoax by one of the participants, Chris Spurling, who, on his deathbed, revealed that the pictures were staged by himself, Marmaduke and Ian Wetherell, and Wilson. References to a monster in Loch Ness date back to St. Columba's biography in 565 AD. More than 1,000 people claim to have seen 'Nessie' and the area is, consequently, a popular tourist attraction. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) (Keystone/Getty Images)

I hear you when you say that you don't want to get involved in a Saskatchewan political debate, but what are your thoughts on what children should learn about the existence of life on planet Earth?

I think it's really important that all of us get a really solid grounding in general Earth science so that people understand the deep history of the planet, that they understand things like where fossil fuels have come from and the causes of earthquakes so that they know not to build in places that are most likely to be affected by earthquakes or by tsunamis. 

LISTEN | CBC's political panel discusses Sask. school curriculum and funding
The government of Saskatchewan says religious schools which get public money must follow an approved curriculum. That means teaching evolution, and debunking any idea that dinosaurs roamed the earth with people. So why is there still a text book that says so? CBC Saskatchewan provincial affairs reporter Adam Hunter and Leader Post columnist Murray Mandryk join host Stefani Langenegger in this week's political panel.

There are so many aspects of Earth science that are critical to being a good citizen and I think that's the important thing is that people need that sort of solid grounding in this sort of science.

With files from Jason Warick and The Morning Edition