Adapted from Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds, by John Pickrell. Columbia University Press, September 16, 2014. Copyright © 2014, John Pickrell. All rights reserved.
A hotly anticipated press conference was held by National Geographic magazine in Washington DC on 15 October 1999. With much fanfare, they announced the discovery of a new feathered fossil from China that was a chimera with a fascinating mix of characters. A team of paleontologists, enthusiastic amateurs and editorial staff were behind the naming and description of the species, dubbed Archaeoraptor liaoningensis. It was to be unveiled in the November issue of the magazine. In an article covering the crop of feathered dinosaurs discovered in the preceding few years, senior assistant editor Christopher Sloan wrote: ‘With arms of a primitive bird and the tail of a dinosaur, this creature found in Liaoning Province, China, is a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds.’
But all was not as it seemed. What American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Dr. Mark Norell later described as an ‘unfortunate chapter’ in modern paleontology would foreshadow a growing and serious problem of fraudulent fossils being produced on an industrial scale in China. ‘To formally name a dinosaur, or any other species, a description must be prepared and published’, wrote Norell in his book Unearthing the Dragon. “Peer review, and pre-peer review, had rejected the paper’s conclusions and evidence and it never appeared in a scientific journal.”
So why did National Geographic choose to go ahead and publish a description of the species when it had been turned down by academic journals? For a non-academic, popular magazine it was heading into uncharted and risky territory.
The team behind the announcement had no idea on that fateful October day, but within just a few months Archaeoraptor liaoningensis would be revealed as one of the biggest fossil hoaxes in history, and the chance discovery of another fossil by Chinese Professor Xu Xing was the key to uncovering the deception. Archaeoraptor was soon dubbed the ‘Piltdown bird’ and the ‘Piltdown chicken’ by the press, in reference to the biggest fossil hoax of all time, in which faked remains of putative early hominids were dug up from Piltdown in England in 1912. For National Geographic – a bastion of publishing usually beyond reproach – this embarrassment would be one of the greatest blunders in its 125-year history. But more on that later.
Amateur collectors
The problem of faked fossils in China is serious and growing. It is exacerbated by the fact that most of the fossils are pulled from the ground by desperately poor farmers and then sold on to dealers and museums rather than being found by paleontologists on fossil digs, which is how specimens are discovered in most other parts of the world.
Liaoning, an impoverished and heavily industrialized province of northeastern China, has been a center for paleontological activity since the early 1990s, when many early bird fossils were found there. When Sinosauropyteryx – the first known feathered dinosaur – was discovered there in 1996, it spurred a fossil hunting gold rush the likes of which had never been seen before.
Cretaceous-era Liaoning was rich with lakes and marshes, which – combined with plenty of volcanic eruptions – made an ideal environment for preserving large numbers of fossils, often in great detail. But that’s not the only reason Liaoning is producing more fossils than any other part of the world today – China can also invest enormous manpower in recovering fossils. ‘Some of these localities are unquestionably very rich in fossils but … the success is clearly linked to the almost unlimited labor available in China’, says Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He describes the work being done there as the ‘paleontological parallel of the construction of the Great Wall of China’.
Thousands of farmers have become ‘bone diggers’, who find fossils and sell them to dealers. Although it is illegal, numerous farmers today are involved in digging, which continually yields new species. High-quality fossils can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, so finding one is akin to hitting the jackpot when your monthly earnings total a few dollars or less.
‘Most of the fossils in museums in China have been purchased from the farmers or the local people who dig them up’, Chiappe explains. ‘Some Chinese museums have their own expeditions and go out to collect…but the bulk of what is collected in China has entirely been dug up by the farmers.’
Xu – who  is based Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology – agrees that many of the specimens from Liaoning have come from farmers and dealers, but adds that fossils he has described from elsewhere, such as Inner Mongolia and Shandong Province, have been excavated by his own team. He doesn’t like to buy fossils and has bought fewer in recent years, but he’s often faced with a difficult decision: if he chooses not to purchase an important fossil it could be lost forever into a private collection, but if he does purchase it, it encourages farmers to keep on digging.
Having thousands of farmers looking out for fossils is a double-edged sword. Though many more fossils are being discovered, they are collected and prepared in a way that destroys much of the scientific information. If scientists don’t know which location and rock layers the fossils come from, they can’t precisely pinpoint their age and struggle to confirm their veracity.
Knowing which layers of rock fossils were found in is the key to dating them, based on the geological study of the layering of rocks known as stratigraphy.  Not having good stratigraphic control for the specimens dug up by farmers and sold on to dealers is a major problem. Chiappe gives as an example a study he is conducting on fossils of the early bird Confuciusornis, which is one of the most abundant fossils found in Liaoning. His team has measured 180 specimens, and they compare them as though all 180 lived at the same time.
‘We treat them as a modern population, but they aren’t a modern population’, he says. ‘They have lived thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe sometimes even millions of years apart.’ If the scientists had data on the precise age of the fossils, they might be able to look into whether the species had undergone changes over time, and with better data on geographic location, they could look at changes between regions. ‘[But] we don’t know that, because we don’t know exactly where the fossils come from’, Chiappe says.
Sophisticated fakery
Another much more serious problem, however, is posed by forged, faked and manipulated specimens – such as National Geographic’s Archaeoraptor – which are becoming increasingly common. Farmers who dig for fossils do so to supplement their meagre incomes and are well aware that complete and spectacular specimens are worth far more than the fragmentary remains. Some don’t even realize they are faking specimens and combine pieces of different fossils found at the same locale. In the most extreme cases, this manipulation is intentional, involving fossils found at disparate locations. It sounds crude, but even the experts have to look carefully to detect the trickery when master forgers have been at work.
Fossils can be faked in a variety of ways. Sometimes they’re hewn from parts from the same species but come from different individuals, so you might have a Microraptor skull, tail and body all from different individuals. Another method involves combining the parts of different species to make a complete fossil that appears to be a new animal. ‘Dinosaurs are very similar to birds, so sometimes these fossils combine different birds, different dromaeosaur specimens, or even birds with dinosaurs’, Xu says. But the most extreme kind of forgery takes fragmentary fossils and carves out the missing parts from the stone.
Professor Phil Currie, at the University of Alberta in Canada, agrees. ‘The Chinese are excellent craftsmen and they have a long, long history of this. If part of the specimen is missing, many of these poachers and amateurs in fact will just restore them or mix specimens together’, he says. ‘If it gets in the wrong place and gets published, then it’s a big problem.’
In rare cases fossils are completely manufactured from scratch. Currie saw one example in China while on a research trip with Xu. ‘He got a call that a very nice specimen had been found and it looked like Archaeopteryx’, he says. ‘And so we flew to another part of China … and when we got there, it took just seconds to realize that it wasn’t a real fossil at all. It had been basically ground-up bone, glued back together in a certain way to look like the Archaeopteryx.’
It’s a significant hurdle to good science, and one that can’t easily be solved. ‘Fossil forgery in the last decade highlights some troubling trends in Chinese vertebrate paleontology’, wrote Xiaoming Wang, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in an opinion piece for the journal PNAS. “While fossil forgeries unfailingly stoke public fascination … the widespread damages that forgery causes are often not sufficiently recognized. Amid the renaissance of Chinese paleontology evidenced by stunning discoveries of inconceivable riches of fossils, paleontologic science is treading a path never experienced elsewhere: commercialization of fossils and all that goes with a quasi-free market of fossil trade that has simultaneously become the boom and bane of Chinese vertebrate paleontology.”
The museum boom
As paleontology has boomed in China so has the museum sector, and new institutions cropping up across the nation have fuelled the market for specimens to fill them. Sometimes these institutions, especially small regional museums, have no trained scientists, and have many fakes alongside real fossils.
In Shandong Province, 100 kilometers south of Beijing, mineral magnate Zheng Xiaoting has used wealth amassed from gold mining to build the largest collection of complete dinosaur fossils anywhere in the world. The Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature has more than 2300 specimens of early birds (including around 600 examples of Confuciusornis) and more than 1000 dinosaur fossils, including hundreds of feathered specimens. The Tianyu collection includes important specimens described in top journals Science and Nature. According to Chiappe, however, even fantastic museums such as this are not immune to the problem of fossil fakery. He believes many fossils at Tianyu have been purchased from diggers without documentation or detailed stratigraphic information.
Based on recent trips to China, Chiappe believes around 50 per cent of specimens he’s seen in regional museums have been enhanced. ‘Sometimes that’s not important. It’s just a little thing that you can highlight and say, “Well, the left hand was sculpted … I’m going to exclude this from my study”,’ he says. ‘But sometimes it’s more significant.’
Anyone working with Chinese specimens needs to have their eyes open to the risks. In the past some scientists have analyzed Chinese fossils based on photographs alone, because it can be difficult to access the collections, but this is no longer good enough. ‘You need to have them under a microscope,’ Chiappe says.
An investigative report published in Science in 2010 revealed that as many as 80 per cent of marine reptile fossils on display in Chinese museums had been altered or manipulated. Unfortunately, there are few solutions to the problem of faked fossils in China. Laws that forbid the sale of fossils have stemmed some of the trade (they have harsh penalties – ranging from significant fines to execution – but are rarely enforced), yet much of it continues on the black market.
Fossils flowing overseas
Another element to the illegal Chinese fossil trade is the flow of important specimens overseas. In November 2010 the China Daily newspaper reported that, in the preceding three years, China had reclaimed more than 5000 fossil specimens from foreign countries, including Australia, the United States, Canada and Italy. A new law, which came in to effect at the start of 2011, levied large fines against any person or organization moving important fossils overseas without express permission from the authorities. Although there are a few exceptions, most major museums in Europe and the United States have strict rules about acquiring looted fossils. Specimens from China and Mongolia (from where it is also illegal to export them) nevertheless routinely turn up for sale overseas.
A number of high-profile cases of illegal fossil trading over the last few years have brought the issue to the attention of the media. There was a blaze of controversy in May 2012 when a largely complete skeleton of a Mongolian T. rex relative, Tarbosaurus bataar, appeared for sale at Heritage Auctions in New York. Before the auction, Mark Norell wrote an open letter arguing that the fossil was clearly from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and must have been obtained illegally. Despite an injunction brought by US lawyers in the employ of the president of Mongolia – and a restraining order from a district court judge having been delivered to the auction house that day – the fossil was sold for just over US$1 million.
Norell is certainly in a position to know the fossil was from Mongolia. He’s been digging up fossils there for two decades, working alongside the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and has authored more than 75 papers on his findings. ‘In my years in the desert I have witnessed ever-increasing illegal looting of dinosaur sites, including some of my own excavations’, he wrote in the letter. ‘These extremely important fossils are now appearing on the international market … There is no legal mechanism (nor has there been for over 50 years) to remove vertebrate fossil material from Mongolia.’
Although the auction had gone ahead, the fossil was taken into custody on 22 June by US authorities, who seized it from a storage facility. ‘We are one step closer to bringing this rare … skeleton back home’, said the president of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, in a statement released by his US lawyer. ‘Today we send a message to looters all over the world: We will not turn a blind eye to the marketplace of looted fossils.’
In a strange twist of fate, the leg bone of another Tarbosaurus specimen appeared in the window of London auction house Christie’s at around the same time. Christie’s is just a short stroll from the Natural History Museum, where paleontologist Dr. Paul Barrett works, and he spotted the fossil one day as he was walking past. Immediately suspicious as to its provenance, he wrote to Christie’s expressing his concerns. The auction house communicated this to the buyer and pulled the bone from sale.
Norell isn’t the only one to have noticed an insidious and growing problem. Phil Currie says he first realized that looting of fossils from protected sites was a serious issue in 2000, when specimens vanished from digs he had worked on for many years in Mongolia. ‘I was horrified to see that more than half a dozen skeletons of Tarbosaurus bataar, protected in situ by legislation for more than 30 years in the Gobi desert, had been ripped out of the ground’, he wrote in a column in New Scientist one month after the New York auction in 2012. ‘This was the beginning of a trend that each year saw more and more such sites desecrated.’
Currie says Mongolian poachers go on the hunt for dinosaur remains that are exposed at the surface of rock faces, then often take a pick-axe to them and work their way through the skeleton until they find the claws and the teeth. In the process, they destroy the rest of the specimen. Even if these fossils end up with museums and academics rather than private collections, they are next to useless, as the context in which they were found is lost.
Though the Tarbosaurus skeleton that had been auctioned in New York was seized by US authorities in June 2012, the legal issues weren’t wrangled out until May 2013, when the fossil was returned to Mongolian officials. In a ceremony in a hotel across the street from the United Nations complex in New York, the dinosaur was symbolically handed back to Dr. Bolortsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist who had been involved in the fight to stop the auction going ahead, and Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Mongolia’s minister of culture, sports and tourism.
The pair used the opportunity to announce that the fossil would be used as the founding exhibit for Mongolia’s first dinosaur museum, the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, where Bolortsetseg would act as chief paleontologist.
In a speech, the minister said that before the controversy over the Tarbosaurus remains, Mongolians were vaguely aware of their paleontological heritage, but didn’t have any celebrity dinosaurs to rally around – a situation that was set to change with the fame generated by the skeleton. The creation of a national dinosaur museum and public interest and pride in its exhibits, is at least a silver lining to the cloud of the looting controversy.
Meanwhile, Eric Prokopi, the Florida fossil dealer who had prepared the Tarbosaurus for sale and auctioned it in New York, was jailed for three months in June 2014. He was also reportedly in possession of a number of other illegally trafficked specimens, including duck-billed hadrosaurs, oviraptorids and more Tarbosaurus remains. All of these are to be returned to Mongolia, as are the remains that were on sale at Christie’s in London, which were sourced back to a British fossil dealer.
The significant media interest in the Tarbosaurus cases and the illegal fossil dealing has a least brought the issue to wider public attention and should make it much more difficult to auction this kind of material in the future, but there’s still a long way to go.
Unravelling the Archaeoraptor hoax
After the Archaeoraptor fiasco that had proved so embarrassing for National Geographic, investigative journalist Lewis M Simons was brought in by the magazine’s then editor, Bill Allen, to investigate. Simons reported in the October 2000 edition that it was: ‘a tale of misguided secrecy and misplaced confidence, of rampant egos clashing, self-aggrandizement, wishful thinking, naive assumptions, human error, stubbornness, manipulation, backbiting, lying, corruption, and, most of all, abysmal communication.’
The American part of the story began with the smuggling of a fossil from China to the United States, where it was presented for sale at a major fossil show in Tucson, Arizona, in February 1999. There it was discovered and purchased by Steven and Sylvia Czerkas, well known paleo-artists and dinosaur enthusiasts who run a small museum in Blanding, Utah. They raised the $80 000 required for the specimen from a backer and patron of the museum. The Czerkases were friends of Phil Currie, so they invited him to study the fossil and prepare a publication on it with them in a scientific journal. After an initial glance, Currie, who worked regularly with National Geographic, alerted editor Chris Sloan to the fossil. Sloan decided it was the perfect addition to a story on feathered dinosaurs he was writing.
In the November 1999 story that was later denounced, Sloan described his first look at the fossil: ‘I’ve seen feathered dinosaurs specimens, but what Stephen shows me takes my breath away. Its long arms and small body scream “Bird!” Its long, stiff tail – which under magnification erupts into a series of tiny support rods paralleling the vertebrae – screams “Dinosaur!”.’ Unbeknown to him at the time, this was because they were from completely different animals.
The Czerkases had hoped to display the fossil in Blanding and that it might be the making of their museum, but Currie and Sloan persuaded them that in order for the fossil to be studied and for anything to be published on it, it must be returned to China after they were finished with it. Once this was agreed, Xu Xing became involved and was sent from Beijing to examine the specimen before its return to China’s IVPP.
Alarm bells started to ring when Timothy Rowe at the University of Texas started to examine the fossil using X-ray CT scans. These allowed the researchers to examine the 3D structure of the fossil. Rowe, an expert on CT scanning fossils, argued the specimen had been made from a number of fossils, and that the tail did not belong to the body.
Currie agreed he had some concerns, but the Czerkases refused to believe there was a serious problem and pushed on for publication. Ultimately, both Nature and Science refused to print a paper. This left National Geographic in the awkward position of officially describing a new species, as their print cycle and media machine were already too far ahead to pull the story.
Xu eventually proved Archaeoraptor was a fake after happening upon the counter slab of the tail in an institute in China in early 2000. It was attached to the legs of an undescribed dromaeosaur. This proved that the tail belonged to another specimen entirely and had been arranged in a false position in the Archaeoraptor fossil.
Cue an extremely embarrassing retraction by National Geographic, which was then forced to launch an enquiry and bring Lewis M Simons on board to carry out an open investigation. Phil Currie would later describe his involvement in this scandal as the ‘greatest mistake of my life’.
Subsequent detailed CT scans by Rowe ultimately revealed that Archaeoraptor was glued together from 88 different pieces of a number of different fossils. Significantly, two of those were species unknown to science, making the specimens important in their own right. The tail was from Microraptor, then the smallest dinosaur ever discovered (see chapter 7), while the front half was a primitive bird that subsequently named Yanornis in a 2002 Nature paper entitled ‘Archaeoraptor’s better half’.
Luis Chiappe says it’s puzzling how the description of Archaeoraptor ended up in print in National Geographic, as ‘the red flag for that one should have been raised long before it got to that point’. With hindsight it seemed obvious that the animal was a chimera of bird and dinosaur features, he says, but it was put together with great skill.
Xu says that much has changed since then. At the time a forgery such as this was not only unexpected, but also difficult to predict. It’s also likely that, in those early years following the discovery of Sinosauropteryx, the first feathered dinosaur, people were caught up in a wave of excitement and were perhaps less careful than they might otherwise have been.
‘If you look at the background, this is a very complicated story’, he says, adding that it’s rare to find completely articulated specimens. ‘In most cases when we do fieldwork in Inner Mongolia, in Xinxiang, or other parts of the world, what you find very often is an incomplete skeleton … You see lots of bones on the surface and you collect those bones and go back to the lab. You need to figure out whether those bones are from one individual or from two individuals or from several individuals.’
A lesson learnt
Experts are much more wary of inconsistencies or anomalies in fossils these days, but 15 years ago the assumption might just have been that the specimen wasn’t assembled properly or had some elements attached by mistake.
‘At the time, in 1999, we were not really prepared to face the problem of composite or faked specimens’, Xu adds. ‘Today, if you see a specimen like that – especially if it’s from Liaoning – you will say, “Oh yes, this is definitely a fake specimen”, because you know that this is a really serious problem. But a decade ago, people were not prepared to understand and deal with the situation.’
China’s new fossil industry has appeared in the blink of an eye and its paleontological community is still finding its feet, but if Chinese authorities and museums are going to maintain their credibility, they will have to tackle the problem of faked fossils and the trafficking of fossils overseas. A remarkable series of finds has given us a window into a weird and unexpected world, but the trade in faked, manipulated and illegally obtained fossils has tainted what are otherwise spectacular collections.