Indiana Jones and the Central Asiatic Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History

He stands in the middle ofthe remote, rugged, Mongolian desert: high leather riding boots, riding pants, broad-brimmed felt hat, leather-holstered sidearm hanging from a glittering ammunition belt. He carries a rifle and knows how to use it. Nobody else dresses like him, but then nobody else is the leader ofthe American Museum's Central Asiatic Expeditions to Mongolia (a place which, at the time of the expeditions, the 1920s, could have been the moon). He is Roy Chapman Andrews, who 50 years later will be the inspiration, it is most plausibly rumored, for Indiana Jones (Figure B14.1.1).

Andrews always knew that he was a man with a destiny. Although he began his career at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) modestly (he scrubbed floors), training in mammalogy (an M.A.), sheer will, charisma, and a very good idea carried him the distance. He had traveled extensively, spoke several Asian languages more or less fluently (at a time when very few Westerners did), and had fabulous contacts in Beijing (then called Peking).

His idea was simple: to run an expedition to what was then known as Outer Mongolia and to see what he could see. Andrews' timing was superb: the Director of the AMNH, the powerful Henry Fairfield Osborn, had concluded that the cradle of humanity was located in Outer Mongolia, and so Andrews was effectively offering Osborn the opportunity to prove his thesis right (the possibility that Osborn could be wrong did not seem to be of concern). The logistics ofthe expedition were extravagant: Dodge cars, resupplied by a caravan of camels, would bear the brunt ofthe expedition. The expedition itself would consist of a range of earth scientists - paleontologists, geologists, and geographers - to explore the Gobi Desert, the huge desert that forms the vast southern section of Mongolia (then called "Outer" Mongolia, as ifto emphasize its remoteness) and northern China.

The journey was not without its risks. The Gobi Desert is a place oftemperature extremes, beset by relentless strong winds. Politically, at the time, the region was in an uproar. China, the base of operations, was torn by civil strife. And in 1922, the year ofthe first ofthree expeditions, a revolution shook Mongolia. Moreover, only one fossil, a rhinoceros tooth, had ever been found in Mongolia.

As it turned out, the Central Asiatic Expeditions were an unqualified success. Although Osborn's theory was not supported, Andrews brought back a wealth of fossils, including

Figure B14.1.1. Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960), explorer, adventurer, and leader of what he called "The New Conquest of Central Asia."

abundant dinosaur material, that made Osborn's error easy to forget. Among the most famous dinosaur finds of his expedition, for example, were Protoceratops (the species name ofthis famous dinosaur is andrewsi) and eggs - the first time that dinosaur eggs were ever found. Other incredible finds included Velocmptor and a group of tiny Mesozoic mammals (still the rarest ofthe rare). Andrews and his field parties also found the largest land mammal and the largest carnivorous land mammal of all time (both Cenozoic in age). Other fossils were obtained whose significance was not completely understood. For example, it was only in 1992 that a specimen of Mononykus, collected by Andrews' scientists in the 1920s, was finally correctly identified. All in all, it was quite a haul.

Andrews and his parties survived the Mongolian revolution of 1922, but eventually the expeditions came to an end when the political situation in China became too unstable and travel too dangerous. Andrews, himself, eventually went on to get the job held much earlier by Osborn: Director of the AMNH. He assured his place in history, however, by leading the Central Asiatic Expeditions.

Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

The griffin legend, then, is one explanation, outside of a scientific context, for the observation of dinosaur material. But, with a few exceptions, the birth of the Western scientific tradition is generally reckoned to have occurred in association with the Enlightenment, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century intellectual revolution devoted to the ability of reason and observations to reveal truth. The Enlightenment brought with it a number of scientific conclusions important to our story, including:

• The Earth is not static, that is, it has changed through time.

• The Earth is of great antiquity (its age was not well understood until the middle of the twentieth century).

• The sequence of the rock record reveals the history of the Earth.

• Fossils are the remains of once-living organisms.

• Organisms on Earth were not static, they too had clearly changed through time, some in startling ways.

It was during this time that we have the earliest description of a dinosaur fossil, in this case the lower end of a theropod thigh (likely Megalosaurus) from Oxfordshire, England. As the bone was large, it was interpreted by the Reverend Dr Robert Plot in 1677 to have been the end of a thigh bone of an antediluvian (pre-Biblical Flood) giant - man or beast (Figure 14.4).2

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