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Roy Chapman Andrews and the Kingdom of the Cretaceous Skulls

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Modern pop-culture legends tell that the character of one of the most well-known adventurer and archaeologist in movie history, Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr. -  or Indiana Jones, was inspired by a real naturalist: Roy Chapman Andrews.

Fig.1. “Roy Andrews Chapman on “Kublai Khan”, from ANDREWS 1921 (image in public domain).

Roy Chapman Andrews (born January 26, 1884 -1960) was an American explorer, adventurer, naturalist, mammalogist and later director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
As young man he worked as taxidermist, a self-taught art, to pay for university. After graduation he attempted to get a job at the Natural History Museum in New York, but at the time there were no positions vacant. Chapman however responded that he was even willing to clean the floors, if this could him bring into the museum.
Surprised by such ardour he was hired as janitor and assistant taxidermist. Maybe mocking him in friendly way he was assigned every morning to mop the floors in the taxidermy studio; the afternoons were then devoted to real taxidermy.

However by hard work and an incredible enthusiasm he managed to attract attention on his persona and he was in the end granted a full time job as taxidermist. In 1907 he was send on his first expedition. February 7, a whale was washed ashore on Long Island and the museum hoped to recover the skeleton for display. Chapman and a colleague got to the site, where they discovered that a storm was slowly, but incessantly, covering the large carcass with sand. For two days they battled against the storm, but only a week later and with the help of local fishermen the skeleton was finally brought into the museum.

Andrew then visited Japan and China, where he collected animals and experienced the particularities of the Far East. In 1920 he persuaded palaeontologist and museum director Fairfield Osborn to organize an expedition into Asia, to search for fossils of the early ancestors of mammals, including humans.

Fig.2. “Relief map of Mongolia showing routes, Central Asiatic Expeditions, 1922-1930.”, from ANDREWS 1932 (image in public domain).

Between 1922 and 1939 Andrews and his team carried out five expeditions into previously poorly mapped or unknown areas of Central Asia , a vast desert plagued by blizzards, sandstorms, snakes, floods, bandits, civil war and an insecure political situation.
The mission of the expedition, carried out with an odd combination of automobiles and camels, was to recover geographical, archaeological, botanical, zoological and geological data, but especially to discover the fossils of early hominids.

Fig.3. “Camel and motor car tires” from ANDREWS 1932 (image in public domain).

One of the most important discoveries of the expedition was achieved by chance – Chapman got lost in the monotonous plains and asked direction to a military outpost, meanwhile the photographer of the team, John B. Shackelford, stumbled upon a cliff edge where he noted some fossil bones. They had discovered a site full of bones of dinosaurs and mammals – even a large egg, believed to be from a bird. Only some hours after the discovery the expedition was forced to turn back – winter was approaching fast in the Gobi – but they decided to return the next years.

Fig.4. “The Flaming Cliffs of Djadokhta” (Southern Mongolia), type locality of the Upper Cretaceous Djadoktha Formation, from BERKEY & MORRIS 1927 (image in public domain).

In the cliffs of red glowing sandstone, named appropriately by Chapman “Flaming Cliffs“, they discovered what would become part of the history of palaeontology: various previously unknown dinosaur species – like the Protoceratops or the Velociraptor - and rare bones and skulls of Cretaceous mammals, like Zalambdalestes, Djadochtatherium and Deltatheridium. Embedded in the sediments they found also clusters of large fossil eggs -eggs of dinosaurs! Such fossils were extremely rare, before Chapman only one site on the French Riviera was known with such fossils.

Fig.5. “The first nest of dinosaur eggs, discovered by Georg Olsen at Shabarakh Usu in 1923. Two eggs and part of another are shown lying on the surface. The small sandstone ledge in the background was removed intact and sent to the Museum. In the center of the block of stone thirteen other eggs were discovered, 1923″, from ANDREWS 1932 (image in public domain).

Roy Chapman Andrews was a gifted storyteller; he published various accounts of his expeditions and loved to set up his image in the general public as an adventurer. In his 1935 book, appropriately titled “This Business of Exploring“, he wrote:

“I was born to be an explorer…There was never any decision to make. I couldn’t do anything else and be happy.”

There are various elements in the Indiana Jones movies resembling the life of Roy Chapman Andrews. Indiana Jones is introduced in the first movie “The Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) venturing to Nepal, like Andrews ventured in the Far East. Jones most recognized attributes comprises a 38 colt and a fedora hat and various photos of Andrew show him with a broad rimmed hat. During expeditions Andrews loved to hunt animals, for collection or cooking, but he also used his pistols to defend the expedition from bandits.
However both producer G. Lucas and director S. Spielberg based the movie and the fictional character mainly on their impressions of matinée serials and pulp magazines of the 1930´s and 1940´s, there is no official statement that Indiana is based on a single or even a true historic character. But Andrews (and many other naturalists and explorers of the 19th and 20th century) without doubt influenced with his discoveries, stories and especially books the general view and love of the public for adventurers. So in a certain manner Andrews still is a part of the Indiana Jones universe.

Bibliography:

ANDREWS, R.C. (1921): Across Mongolian Plains – A naturalists account of China’s “Great Northwest”. D. Appleton & Company: 276
ANDREWS, R.C. ed. (1932): The New Conquest of Central Asia – A narrative of the explorations of the Central Asiatic Expeditions in Mongolia and China, 1921-1930. Natural History of Central Asia Vol.I.; The American Museum of Natural History New York: 678
ANDREWS, R.C: (1935): This Business Of Exploring. G.P. Putnam´s Sons, New York: 288
BERKEY, C.P. & MORRIS, F.K. (1927): Geology of Mongolia – A reconnaissance report based on the investigations of the years 1922-1923. Natural History of Central Asia Vol.II; The American Museum of Natural History New York: 474
GALLENKAMP, C. (2001): Dragon Hunter – Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions. Penguin Group, New York: 344
NOVACEK, M. (2002): Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia. Farrar Strauss and Giroux: 352

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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