In the Sinhua Hills (新化丘陵) of Tainan, farms, temples, narrow roads and stands of bamboo dot the landscape, making them virtually indistinguishable from other rural areas in southern Taiwan. There is one important difference, however: over the years, the environment here has alternated between ocean, brackish lagoon, freshwater, and dry land, leaving behind a rich variety and concentration of fossils. As the Cailiao River (菜寮溪) erodes the hills, these fossils are continuously being exposed.
These fossils were first excavated for academic study during the Japanese colonial period, eventually culminating in the opening of a museum dedicated to their display. Over the years, this museum grew, first merging with a neighboring hall dedicated to indigenous Pingpu relics, then undergoing a further expansion that saw its scope broaden beyond Taiwan to include a general account of the history of life on Earth.
This facility, now known as the Tainan City Zuojhen Fossil Park (台南左鎮化石園區), has enough to keep small children engaged for an afternoon family outing, but also has such a wealth of information (including excellent English descriptions) that a thorough exploration of the park may take some more than a full day.
Photo: Tyler Cottenie
CAILIAO RIVER FOSSILS
The current Fossil Park is made up of five exhibition halls. In the first hall, the Natural History Education Hall, visitors get into the spirit of fossil hunting right away by descending a long ramp into the basement. As you descend, a dirt wall on the right shows you the different layers that scientists encounter when digging near the Cailiao River, and the types of fossils that may lie in each. Down in the basement, visitors can learn about how fossils themselves are formed and why this region has so many of them.
In the second hall, the History Hall, there is an exhibit dedicated to Chen Chun-mu (陳春木), the man who excavated and curated a large portion of the fossils now on display in the museum, earning him the nickname “Grandpa Fossil.”
Photo: Tyler Cottenie
The first academic to take an interest in the fossils here was Japanese professor Ichiro Hayasaka of Taihoku Imperial University (modern-day National Taiwan University), who began excavations here in 1931 and collaborated closely with Grandpa Fossil. The fossils they and others uncovered in the Cailiao River area were originally on display in the Fossil Park’s predecessor, the Cailiao Fossil Museum, which opened in 1981, and are now mainly on display in the fourth exhibition hall, the Fossil Hall.
The fossilized remains of saber-toothed tigers, deer, crocodiles, steppe mammoths and rhinoceroses who used to call this area home are all on display here.
The museum’s showpiece is a beautiful complete skeleton of the Hayasaka rhinoceros, Nesorhinus hayasakai, uncovered not far from the Fossil Park. This endemic species was named after Hayasaka for his contributions to paleontology in Taiwan.
Photo: Tyler Cottenie
Also in the History Hall are written records from Tainan of great historical value, the Sinckan Manuscripts. Some of these documents were handwritten by Dutch missionaries in the Siraya language, which is now undergoing revitalization, in their attempts to convert the local indigenous population and are the earliest surviving examples of a written Austronesian language in Taiwan.
The practice of reading and writing in local languages was kept alive even after the Dutch left, so later Sinckan Manuscripts contain Chinese characters along with Siraya Romanization. This hall also has a comprehensive display of Siraya clothing and pottery, as well as a reconstructed Siraya house. Archaeological relics from older cultures on the island of Taiwan like the Niuchoutzu (牛稠子) and Tahu (大湖) are on display here, too.
BEYOND TAIWAN
Photo: Tyler Cottenie
The third hall, the Evolution Hall, may be of special interest to children, who are probably expecting to see dinosaurs when visiting a “fossil” museum. Of course, Taiwan as an island only formed a few million years ago and so does not have fossils of the much older, land-dwelling dinosaurs. However, this hall looks much further back in time than the age of Taiwan, presenting the evolution of life on Earth from its earliest days up to the present.
There is, of course, the most quintessential dinosaur skeleton, Tyrannosaurus rex, on display, but visitors can also learn about more in-depth concepts like mass extinction events and sea level change’s effects on life.
The museum also showcases a number of fossils from the Penghu Islands and the Taiwan Strait, which, at various times when sea levels were lower, created a land bridge between the Asian mainland and Taiwan.
Photo: Tyler Cottenie
The oldest human fossils in the country were found in this region, Homo tsaichangensis, dating to between 190,000 and 450,000 years ago. There also used to be crocodiles living in the Penghu area. The oldest and most complete vertebrate skeleton discovered in the country is one of these crocodiles, dating to at least 15 million years ago.
INTERACTIVE ACTIVITIES
Far from being just a collection of static artifacts and descriptions, the museum features a number of hands-on activities that will keep younger (and even older) visitors engaged.
Photo: Tyler Cottenie
In the basement of the first hall, there is a virtual paleontological dig where visitors can “brush” sand off a screen and uncover various prehistoric animals from Taiwan. Outside in the courtyard, there is a real sandbox where young kids can play, digging around for whatever their imagination conjures up.
Nearly every exhibit in the museum has a number beside it that corresponds to a selection in the museum’s audio guide, which is online and can be accessed by smart phone. In the final exhibit hall, there is a touch-screen quiz that tests visitors’ knowledge of the museum’s exhibits. There are different difficulty levels to choose from here, with plenty of questions that may stump even the most observant of adults.
The final exhibit hall also features a room where children can color their own prehistoric animals and see them come to life on a screen. In the “Fossil Lab,” a workbench is set up behind glass so that visitors can observe museum staff cleaning and preserving fossils up close.
Photo: Tyler Cottenie
Although visitors can’t get their hands on real fossils here, the Fossil Hall features an augmented reality video activity where visitors can compare bone size to differentiate between species.
Finally, there are several fun photo opportunities throughout the museum. These include video projections where you can have your photo taken beside prehistoric animals, and a massive Megalodon jaw, complete with teeth, set up so the whole family can stand inside. An augmented reality filter can make it look as though this monster shark is eating everyone up.

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