In 1999, the National Geographic Society, in a splashy press conference, announced a stunning new fossil find to the world–a half-dinosaur half-bird that was “the missing link” in avian evolution. It was given the name “Archaeoraptor”. But within a short time, the Society was forced to withdraw its announcement when it was discovered that the celebrated fossil was a fraud, earning it a new nickname–the “Piltdown Chicken”.
Reconstruction of Microraptor, one of the species used to fabricate the “Archaeoraptor” skeleton
In July 1997, a Chinese farmer was digging around one night in a shale pit in Liaoning Province. These shale beds had already yielded some significant fossil finds, and several scientific expeditions were busy excavating the site. But at night, there was another set of excavators, as local farmers surreptitiously dug up their own fossils. This was entirely illegal, and the renegade diggers faced stiff penalties, but China’s spectacular economic growth had not yet reached the rural areas, and much of the rural peasantry was willing to risk jail in hopes of finding some nice-looking fossils that they could sell on the black market to supplement their meager income.
On this day, the still-unknown Chinese farmer found a few fragmentary pieces scattered around: the upper body of an animal that looked something like a bird, a lower leg, a section of tail, and a few other odds and ends. Individually, they would not sell for very much. But, the farmer knew, if the fossil were more complete, it would look much better and therefore command a much higher price. So the enterprising farmer took some glue, arranged the pieces together like puzzle pieces so they looked like a single complete animal, and fastened them in place. He probably got less than a hundred dollars for it from a local black-market fossil dealer–enough to feed the family for a while.
China is very conscious of its natural treasure of important fossil deposits, and, by law, every fossil found in China is considered to be the property of the Chinese government and may not leave the country without permission. Nevertheless, there is a thriving international black market in Chinese fossils, smuggled through a vast network of dealers. Here, they disappear, to be kept in desk drawers or hung on living room walls–undescribed by science and unavailable for scientific study. Some of the fossils in this underground market go to wealthy private collectors in China. Many go to other collectors in Russia or Europe. But the majority of them end up in the United States. Here, the demand for fossils for private collections is vast and insatiable.
Through this smuggling network, the new Chinese fossil from Liaoning left China sometime in June 1998 and ended up for sale in a rock and gem shop in Tucson AZ. The vast majority of fossil finds are mere fragments, often only single bones, and complete fossil skeletons are a rarity and command high prices. The asking price for this one was a whopping $80,000.
In Utah, an amateur fossil collector named Stephen Czerkas began raising money. He was the owner/curator of the small Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, and he wanted to purchase the fossil not only to display in his museum, but to make it available for study. With much effort, he raised enough money from museum patrons and benefactors to buy the fossil in February 1999.
After obtaining the skeleton, Czerkas contacted paleontologist Phil Currie at the University of Alberta in Canada. Currie, to obtain funding for a proper study, in turn contacted the National Geographic Society, and a deal was worked out: the Society would help fund the studies, and in return the study team would keep their work secret until the scientific paper describing the fossil was submitted to the science journal Nature. Also, since the fossil had been illegally imported from China, it would be returned when the study was completed.
Immediately, there were problems. Currie noticed that although the skeleton had two lower legs, they were identical mirror images of each other. Obviously, they were the slab and counterslab of one piece (fossils are uncovered by splitting rock layers apart, which often leaves an exposed imprint on each face). The fossil, which the team had taken to calling “Archaeoraptor”, was not a natural assembly–someone had arranged at least some of the pieces together. More suspicions were raised in July 1999 when an x-ray CT scan showed that the tail bone had no actual connection to the rest of the skeleton, and was probably also an “arranged” piece that had been added to the skeleton.
It’s not clear just how much the National Geographic Society knew about these questions at this point, but the “Archaeoraptor” story was already scheduled as the cover spread in the November 1999 issue of National Geographic Magazine, and the editors began getting nervous that the fossil had not yet been submitted to Nature. When the paper describing “Archaeoraptor” was finally submitted in August, the journal rejected it, saying that National Geographic was pressuring them to publish it quickly and they didn’t think they had time for a proper peer review. In turn, the team sent the paper to Science, the other leading scientific journal. They too rejected the paper, after the peer-reviewers noted that the fossil had been illegally smuggled out of China, and that it appeared to have been “doctored” by adding pieces to enhance its commercial value.
So by October 1999, the National Geographic Society knew that there would be no peer-reviewed paper to accompany their magazine piece, and also knew that there were questions about the fossil’s legitimacy. Nevertheless, they decided to run the “Archaeoraptor” story anyway, announcing the find at a press conference on October 15 and running a full-length story in the November issue. “Archaeoraptor” was described as an important fossil link between dinosaurs and birds.
The response was scathing. In the article, Nat Geo editor Christopher Sloan had “informally” given the fossil the name “Archaeoraptor lioaningensis”, adding a proviso that this would not become the official scientific name until after the formal scientific paper had been peer-reviewed and published. This brought an explosion of criticism, with one prominent ornithologist complaining that it wasn’t up to “some witless journalist” to give formal names to scientific discoveries. There was also criticism of giving such publicity to a fossil that had been illegally collected and sold, which would encourage others and lead to more and more fossils being taken out of scientific hands. And, there were now whispers that the fossil itself was a fraud.
Things quickly unraveled. On October 20, 1999, five days after Nat Geo’s press conference, Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing, who had been invited by Currie’s team to study the fossil, finally arrived in the US for a look. When he studied the fossil’s tail, he recognized it as being very similar to a specimen he himself was studying in China, which he would soon name Microraptor. Returning to China, he scoured local collections and soon found the counter-slab to the “Archaeoraptor” tail, identified by two matching stains in the rocks. They did not belong to a bird at all, but to the Microraptor species. In December 1999, Xu sent word to the “Archaeoraptor” team that the tail definitely was not actually part of the fossil, and had been added later. In February 2000, Nat Geo held a press conference to announce that the “Archaeoraptor” fossil was a “composite”, made up of at least three and perhaps as many as five different skeletons. (Many of the press stories about the fossil mistakenly labeled it a “fake”, but this is not true; unlike the famous Piltdown hoax, none of the “Archaeoraptor” bones were altered or artificially manufactured–they were all genuine fossils, but they had been artificially arranged together in such a way as to make a complete skeleton where actually none existed.)
Ironically, though, the “Archaeoraptor” still held some important scientific discoveries. The upper body section that made up most of the fossil turned out to be a previously-unknown early type of bird, about 120 million years old, that was given the name Yanornis. The tail belongs to theMicroraptor described by Xu–at a body length of just 16 inches, this is the smallest known member of the raptor group, and while it was not a bird, it had (like other members of its family) some evolving characteristics which it shared with birds, and it probably had feathers.
Perhaps the most important result of the “Archaeoraptor” affair, however, has been the discussion it provoked about the illegal fossil trade for the private black market, and the importance of making significant fossils available for scientific study. At the urging of international scientific bodies, China is now making efforts to curb the illegal collection of its fossils and to intercept the smuggling rings which carry them overseas.