Saturday, November 15, 2014

How Fake Fossils Pervert Paleontology

Scientific American     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. [....]

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. 

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.[...]

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. [...]

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. [...]

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.


  1. If (supposed) rabbonim can issue fake seruvim, why can't (supposed) scientists issue fake fossils?

  2. I dig. Issuing phony Seruvim is a dina-sore point, no bones about it. It Rex marriages.


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