In the Beginning: The Legends of Venezuela

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

The story of geology and exploration in Venezuela has been written by dozens of geologists who made a difference in that country.

By extension and through mentorship and writing, their impacts continue today.

Gustavo Coronel, one of the pioneer explorationists in Venezuela, wanted to make sure that their names, while now largely confined to the history books, are not forgotten by today’s oil finders.

Alexander Von Humboldt arrived in eastern Venezuela just before 1800 and traveled to the Orinoco river region, where he collected fossils as he went and made geomagnetic measurements.

Arriving in Venezuela in the early 1900s, a group of young geologists coordinated by Ralph Arnold made a remarkable regional survey of its petroleum prospects, delineating most of the oil regions in the country.

A second wave of geologists followed the Arnold Group, hired by the oil companies to conduct oil prospecting in the Maracaibo basin – among them, P. Christ, E. Kündig and H. Kugler.

Alfred Senn explored the state of Falcon, contributing to the zonation of Tertiary sediments with the use of foraminifera. Ralph Liddle produced the first geological map and stratigraphic chart of the country and in 1927 wrote his “Geology of Venezuela and Trinidad.”

In the 1930s the first Venezuelan geologists became active. First, Guillermo Zuloaga and Santiago E. Aguerrevere studied the stratigraphy of the Venezuelan northern mountain range.

In the mid-1930s Clemente Gonzalez de Juana arrived in Venezuela to work in the Quiriquire oilfield – but his major contribution was as a teacher. For three decades he became a beloved professor and mentor of dozens of Venezuelan geologists who studied at the Caracas Universidad Central de Venezuela, and with former students Juana M. Iturralde de Arozenaand Xavier Piccard he wrote the “Geologia de Venezuela y de sus cuencas petrolíferas,” a most comprehensive work on the geology of Venezuela.

At that time Venezuela also was host to three exceptional micro-paleontologists:

  • Pedro Bermudez was a Cubanscientist whobuilt up amost complete collection of Caribbean microfossils, now in the hands of the Venezuelan government.
  • Hans Bolli excelled in the study of microforaminifera and fossil pollen.
  • R.M. Stainforth was a pioneer in thestudy of planktonic foraminifera as a tool for worldwide stratigraphic correlation.

The Princeton Caribbean research group, led by HarryHess (Gabriel Dengo, Reginald Shagam and Jeff Bushman) studied the northern Venezuela Caribbean mountain in the context of plate tectonics – a concept pioneered by Hess. Amos Salvador and Emil Rod also were active at this time.

Salvador was Spanish-born but received his geological degree in Caracas, while Rod was a Swiss geologist who did valuable work on the structural patterns of Western Venezuela (“Strike-slip faults of Western Venezuela”, AAPG BULLETIN, Vol. 40, March 1956).

I hold wonderful memories of Karl Dallmus, Konrad Habicht and Otto Renz, the first with Exxon and the other two with Shell.

I remember Dallmus as a great admirer of simple solutions to complex geological problems, always quoting Ocam’s razor. Otto Renz was an exceptional stratigrapher, notable for his knowledge of Cretaceous ammonites.

And Konrad Habicht was my dearest friend and mentor, an exceptional geologist and human being. He and his wife once traveled eight hours to my camp, in the middle of nowhere, to bring me a birthday cake.

I also admired the work of Venezuelan geologist Alirio Bellizia at the Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons. Bellizia was not only a very prolific author but a superb organizer of geological and mining associations in the country.

During the 1950s and the 1960s I worked next to several excellent Venezuelan geologists: Jose Mendez, Gustavo Feo Codecido, Erimar Von der Osten, Jose Antonio Galavis and Hugo Velarde.

Geologist Anibal Martinez wrote his “Chronology of Venezuelan Oil” in 1969 and developed into an international expert on the terminology of petroleum reserves. Feo Codecido and I worked in the geology of the Gulf of Venezuela and Galavis and Velarde in the geology of the Orinoco belt.

During these years J. Myles Bowen (recipient of the AAPG Pioneer Award in 2011) arrived in Venezuela, doing work in the Perija region, near the Colombian border.

Finally, I remember a group of bright, young Venezuelan geologists arriving after all of the other greats – Franco Urbani, Carlos Schubert, Hans Krause, Daisy Perez de Mejías, Enrique Vasquezand Lourdes de Gamero, among others.

They are now relative old timers, from the “Pleistocene,” teaching to the new what they learned from the old.

That is good, because in Venezuela, the story of geology and exploration is far from finished.

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