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Roy Chapman Andrews; Paleontology  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
18 Dec 1998

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Radio Expeditions
Michael Novacek/ Don Smith Interview
December 18, 1998

DS
00:02:38 Tell us what you do.00:02:41

MN
00:02:42 Ok, my name is Michael Novacek I'm vertebrate paleontologist and also the provost at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and among other things I've led the museums more recent fossil expeditions to the Gobi, since 1990.

DS
00:03:05 What is your connection with Roy Chapman Andrews? 00:03:11

MN
00:03:12 In a sense, in a very emphatic way we followed in his footsteps because Roy Chapman Andrews and his expeditions left Mongolia and China at the end of the 1920's and never returned and we were the first expedition to return to the Gobi, from any Western country, in more than 60 years. We were invited back by the Mongolians in 1990 soon after they declared their independence from the decaying Russian empire, the Soviet empire.

DS
00:03:48 Why was it so difficult to get back in? 00:03:49

MN
00:03:50 Well, it was primarily a problem with politics, the Soviets had sort of closed the place down. There were Polish scientists working there as well as Soviet scientists working with Mongolians but basically they shut out work from Western countries during those intervening decades.

DS
00:04:10 Andrews died in 1960. Did you ever meet him? 00:04:12

MN
00:04:13 I never met Roy Chapman Andrews no, because by the time I was off into my career in paleontology Andrews was already, had already died. I didn't really launch into my area, decide a field until the mid 70's.

DS
00:04:39 From your reading about him, what sort of man do you suppose he was? 00:04:43

MN
00:04:44 He was a flamboyant fellow I think. He had a gift for looking, identifying the riskier and perhaps, the more audacious explorations and enterprises. He was a hard working fellow that didn't have the strong kind of academic background that many scientists do. He really worked his way up in the ranks at the American Museum, starting by polishing floors and tables and then going to the beach and flinsing out whales that had been beached, doing all kinds of odd jobs and he sort of established himself as a hard worker and later as a leader, through his work in the museum.

DS
00:05:35 He really looked the part of an explorer didn't he? 00:05:38

MN
00:05:39 He was quite a dashing looking fellow, hat and all, very neatly dressed. We look like real slobs compared to him, looking at pictures of our more recent expeditions with long hair and shorts and so forth. He doesn't seem like he had even a wrinkle in his shirt, even in the worst sand storm in the Gobi.

DS
00:06:03 Is he an Indiana Jones role model? 00:06:07

MN
00:06:07 It's been said that he was basically the inspiration for Indiana Jones. There are a lot of parallels. It's not clear that the makers of the movie endorse this but clearly, it certainly seems to be a real person that has a lot of the Indiana Jones persona. A good example of that is that he was an expert horseman and an expert marksman. Indeed, he shot and probably killed a couple bandits near the Chinese Mongolian border during one of the early expeditions.

DS
00:06:46 He was a good story teller too.00:06:47

MN
00:06:48 He was quite a storyteller and this is apparent from the books he wrote which were very popular, including children's books about dinosaurs. In fact the first book that I ever really took to and really loved was a book called all about dinosaurs that he wrote about the Gobi expeditions and other things. Even his more lengthy treatise on the Gobi expedition is good reading it's very, it reads like a real narrative, like a real story.

DS
00:07:19 Did he embellish his stories any?00:07:21

MN
00:07:22 There probably is some embellishment. A good example is he, he said that Mongolian dogs are extremely ferocious. They attack humans and even kill humans and eat humans. I'm not sure that that's quite true although these are and they remain today very aggressive dogs that you have to be careful on is you come upon a nomadic settlement, a gare but, it seems a bit of a bit of an exaggeration to think of dogs, man eating dogs out in the Gobi. He was interesting because he's sort of a pr fellow. There was a legendary worm in the Gobi, a lot of Mongolians believed in called the El Goi Hor Hor and he convinced the powers that be in the capital of Mongolian that he would also search for this mythical beast. It wasn't mythical in terms of the Mongolians actually believed in this thing but no one had actually seen one or recorded strong evidence of it. So he claimed that he was also going out for the search of this thing. I don't think he actually believed that it existed and came back to report in very somber tones that he failed to find evidence of the El Goi Hor Hor but maybe in some future expedition that he would find it. So he is a little bit of pr and a storytelling to lend some drama to his activities.

DS
00:08:57 But he was a serious scientist too.00:08:59

MN
00:08:59 He was a serious scientist and that shouldn't be minimized. He assembled a crack team of scientists for one thing and that's to his credit. He really fostered the work of some expert scientist like Walter Granger and the geologist Burkee. They published a series of excellent scientific papers based on the result of the explorations in the Gobi in the 1920's so it really fostered a good piece of scientific work.

DS
00:09:32 What is he known for doing? 00:09:37

MN
00:09:38 Andrews himself actually studied modern bird and mammals, he wrote some papers on fossil mammals and fossil vertebrates. As a scientist himself as a publishing scientist he was far overshadows by some of the other members of the expedition like Walter Granger. So his major claim to fame is as the leader of these expeditions. And also perhaps his most important work is the very, very large book about the expeditions. It's the summary of the several expeditions during the 1920's. A little bit imperialistically titled The New Conquests of Central Asia. But this is a very important book and it summarizes a lot of the information of the expeditions.

DS
00:10:31Your book is called Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs, what are the flaming cliffs?00:10:37

MN
00:10:38 The Flaming Cliffs are another example of Andrews skills at weaving a story. This is a spot that he discovered in 1922 quite by accident. Actually the Andrews team was lost and he had stopped at a gare to ask some soldiers for some directions and while he was there the expedition photographer got out of one of those spindly wheel Dodge cars and walked over the edge of a flat plain and there was a big fantasy of red cliffs and spires. Immediately Shakleford, the photographer went running down the hill and he started finding bits and pieces of dinosaurs and even dinosaurs skulls. The place, traditionally was known as Shabaraque Ushu which simply refers to, ush means water, refers to the fact that there is a well near this location but Andrews wasn't satisfied with that. He called this escarpment The Flaming Cliffs because, and it really does seem to be set aflame in the light of the dying light of the afternoon or late evening sun. The name has stuck it's a very dramatic place and it has a dramatic name.

DS
00:11:59 For a fossil hunter there's something magical about this place.00:12:00

MN
00:12:01 It's incredible, it may be the most famous dinosaur site in the world, not the richest, we've found probably the richest dinosaur site in 1993. But it is probably the most famous because it was here in 1923 that Andrews and his team from the America museum found dinosaur eggs, the first bona fide evidence for nests of dinosaurs.

DS
00:12:28 What did it look like during the time that dinosaurs were alive? 00:12:32

MN
00:12:34 It's kind of interesting that the Gobi, 80 million years ago when these animals lived was rather arid it was bit like a desert like it is today. This is remarkable because almost every other dinosaur site in the world represents a site that was rather wet with a lot of trees and slow moving rivers and flood plains. But the Gobi as far as we can tell, 80 million years ago when these animals lived was chalk full of sand dunes there may have been small streams and lakes in the middle of these sand dunes so maybe these animals congregated around oasises where there was some water, but there was a lot of aridity around there too.

DS
00:13:22 Describe your first fossil find.00:13:28

MN
00:13:29 Well, in 1990 we struck out with Mongolian colleagues on our first reconnaissance and of course, our first stop at the Flaming Cliffs. This is almost, I suppose the closest thing to a religious experience that a rather non-religious scientist can have, like myself. Because of course I have dreamed about going to this place ever since I was seven years old. I almost have to say the first site of those cliffs was as moving or more moving than a later moment when I started finding dinosaur bones at the base of the cliffs. When I saw the outline of the cliff and the main tower were Andrews had camped and some of the other escarpments it looked so familiar to me that I knew every line because I had looked at it so many times in his books when I was a young boy. So that was a very moving experience.

DS
00:14:31 Let's go back to Andrews. How did he start his career as a scientist? 00:14:40

MN
00:14:41 He was an amateur. An avid amateur zoologist and field naturalist. He grew up in Wisconsin and spent a lot of time hiking around the woods and collecting various things mostly birds and other animals, not so much fossils. His interest in fossils really came through his interests in Asia and his work in the American Museum. So when he got to the Museum he didn't have this high status he had to work himself up in the ranks, he did this not only by doing a good job but by doing, as a good politican would do, by becoming a fairly good friends with the Imperious Henry Fairfield Osborne who is not only a paleontologist but the president of the museum.

DS
00:15:38 And then Asia¿00:15:41

MN
00:15:42 He really took to Asia. He had read reports from the British Museum and other places about strange animals and plants coming out of China and other places, so he early on made a reconnaissance expedition of China that sort of touched Mongolia but not completely so but that was enough to excite him and to convince Osborne that the museum should launch a full scale expedition into Mongolia. It's funny though the goal of the expedition, as Andrews outlined it was never realized. He convinced Osbourne that all this money should be spent on a big expedition to central Asia because he was convinced that humans originated in Central Asia, that the wellspring for human evolution was actually on, in the middle of this massive continent. At the time that was a popular idea. Of course subsequently, Africa seems to be very clearly the place of human origins but at the time this was a popular notion. But Andrews failed to find any evidence of human remains in central Asia, of these Ancient human remains.

DS
00:17:07 Some people said that he was a failure because of it.00:17:10

MN
00:17:11 Yeah, I don't like that. Several historians have commented that the expedition was overall a failure. It seems very dismissive and inaccurate to say that in the course of looking for human remains that he tripped on the world's greatest dinosaur finds up to that time including the first evidence of dinosaur nests and they found a whole incredible array of mammals that were a bit younger than the rocks that were preserving the dinosaurs. Included in these very famous fossils is the world's largest land mammal that ever lived. The world's largest land mammal called, Indricatherium. It's a big rhino-like form. That's huge. We have part of the skull we have the skull of it at the American Museum in our exhibit hall. Looks about twice the size of a living elephant.

DS
00:18:10 That's what you mean when you say the age of paleontological discovery began in the Gobi in the 1920's?00:18:25

MN
00:18:27 It's fair to say though that paleontology was in full flourish in the late 19th century in the American West in the early 20th century. Workers like Cope and Marsh and their famous expeditions to collect big big dinosaurs in Wyoming and Colorado and other scientists were very successful and well known but I think what Andrews did is he greatly enlarged the terrain of action and he went off to a very exotic place and he demonstrated that you could find things just as rich and wondrous in this very isolated spot in Asia as you can find in Western North America which had been populated by a lot more explorers by that time.

DS
00:19:25 What's the significance of finding dinosaurs in Asia, what does that tell us? 00:19:30

MN
00:19:32 Well, dinosaurs seem now from bits and pieces that we even have from islands off of Antarctica, they seem to have been everywhere on the globe. So, they had to have very widespread distribution. It's important, therefore to get an idea of what these dinosaur faunas, these communities were like in places outside of western North America where most of the evidence has been studied or has come from. So, central Asia and China for that matter are probably the only places that compete with North America for the kind of richness of the dinosaur record. To some extent Argentina qualifies too. But Central Asia in particular is as rich or richer than the North American faunas. This gives us suddenly a completely different perspective. We now know what dinosaur diversity is on either side of the globe. It gives us a much grater geographic sweep.

DS
00:20:38 The expeditions were fairly elaborate, especially the last one.00:20:44

MN
00:20:45 For those times these were very elaborate undertakings and they were very expensive. It's estimated that the series of expeditions in the 1920's cost something around $685,000 a lot of money in 1920's dollars for a series of expeditions. But after all he used 100 camels to carry fuel for his cars and other supplies and then he had 8 or 9 of these Dodge motor cars. I think that this was one of the first expeditions to use motor cars to use automobiles as sort of a critical part of the traveling mode for the expedition.

DS
00:21:34 Getting gasoline is a big problem in the Gobi Desert.00:21:36

MN
00:21:37 It still is and it was certainly at that time, so all the fuel had to be carried on camels. We carry all our fuel with us now because it's very hard to get gasoline, you can't really get gasoline out by the edges of the Gobi Desert. So we carry it in a gas tank. We don't use camels anymore but still logistics are very difficult.

DS
00:22:03 Andrews ingratiated himself to people that he found along the way.00:22:08

MN
00:22:09 They were very good with intersecting with people. Andrews his political acumen is very evident in China where he befriended the royal household, the emperor. And he set himself up in extremely comfortable quarters, not far from the forbidden city with a whole complex of small houses and walled in courtyards and gardens and a very full staff of servants so he used that as a base camp in between expeditions. I don't think that he ever particularly cared to go back to New York living lavishly as he did in Beijing.

DS
00:22:51 He is still remembered there.00:22:53

MN
00:22:54 Yes, absolutely. It's interesting and perhaps not quite realized that Andrews as an explorer has an enormous influence not just on Americans like myself but has been very influential to Mongolian scientists and Chinese scientists and Russian scientists. So many of these later explorers of the Gobi were clearly influenced by Andrews successes.

DS
00:23:23And you met people who pointed out Andrews sights to you.00:23:28

MN
00:23:29Absolutely, The Flaming Cliffs has been pretty well known for decades because there's even, for years the Russians were conveying tourists down to a spot near there some of the other localities are a little bit less easy to find but our colleagues, our Mongolian colleagues well know the ways to those places. Indeed we've collected there too.

DS
00:23:56 What's it like working out there? 00:24:01

MN
00:24:02 I think isolation is the key element of this experience. Mongolia is a huge country. It's about a third of the size of the United States but there are only 2.5 million people and most of those people are in the cities. Like Ulanbatar. So the Gobi is this vast place. It's half a million square miles, something like five Wyomings. I don't know how many people there are, a few thousand , maybe more than ten thousand but not very much. And particularly the areas where there are these dinosaurs these are even the emptiest parts of the Gobi. One year when we had a National Geographic film team out there with us I think I had about 38 people in camp we were probably the largest town in that province of the Southern Gobi. The isolation at first would strike you, it's sort of, you may drive for two days and not see another human being across these beautiful valleys and empty canyon lands. It's hot like other deserts, especially when you get down to lower elevations. This year, this summer we experienced temperatures pushing 108 degrees during the day, 108 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, tend to be cooler because it's a northern latitude desert and sites like the Flaming Cliffs are pretty high in elevation there around 5,000 feet or so so the days get hot but not insufferable, maybe up to about 100 degrees.

DS
00:25:46What are sandstorms like? 00:25:49:50

MN
00:25:50 Oh, they're terrible. We've seen some very dramatic sandstorms. Of course Andrews describes I was about to say early on that maybe this was another example of Andrews storytelling and hyperbole because he describes these ferocious sandstorms rolling in on them and devastating their camps shredding tents and destroying equipment and practically suffocating people. But we've experienced some of these ourselves and this is no exaggeration, they can be very ferocious almost terrifying. As a matter of fact I've pushed back dates of the expedition to early July primarily because June tends to have more blustery weather and sandstorms then the July month and things have been a little better. We only get one or two of these big sandstorms every year. We always destroy tents though, equipment, every year we've got casualties at least casualties in supplies and material because of these devastating storms.

DS
A lot of people think that there's nothing left to discover.

MN
It's a funny thing you know there's been so much discovery and so much exploration in the wild regions of earth over the last century that one could see why one would claim that the age of discovery is over but it's just emphatically not true. Science probably more than other human endeavors has the advantage of always being on the frontier, there's always something new to describe and just because people have been to the Gobi Desert several times does not mean that they are not going to find new and incredible things, there are many canyon lands that have never been scoured, people have never even been there so there's great potential for discovery. Likewise when you think of exploration on the ocean floor and parts of Antarctica and the Polar regions and other great deserts of the world you really are struck by how puny, how nascent this effort has been up to this point in time. There's tons of things to do in these places. We have a sense of a very minuscule part of the ocean floor and what it means. So there's a lot around, there's a lot to find.

DS
What about your field?

MN
I think that there are several levels here. Paleontology still it still deals with a time honored practice, find really great fossils and nothing excites scientists and for that matter, the public, more than discovery of striking new, newly discovered extinct creature, weird dinosaurs, weird worms from the Cambrian giant sharks from the Paleozoic. These things are very exciting because they're are only evidence of this vast vast timescape in probably 99 percent of all the life that ever lived on earth and 99 % of all he life that has ever existed here is extinct. So to have these highlights, these windows into the past, continues to be exciting. That's why field collecting and description of new fossils is always going to be an exciting aspect of paleontology. In addition to that, I think that paleontology has matured and faces some very interesting areas of science. There's much better sense of quantifying the information that the fossil record provides in terms of evolution of species and evolution of communities. There's work on molecular biology that in a sense interfaces with fossils because gene sequences can actually be sequenced in fossil or gene sequences of living animals and other organisms provides as sort of a tree a pattern of evolution that one can compare to the fossil record. This has lead to a very fruitful area of study and debate. And looking at the molecular evidence for the history of life versus the direct fossil evidence for those histories. It's an area where I'm much involved in. There are new techniques, catscans of fossils and skulls and other use of remote sensing and global positioning systems that greatly facilitate work in paleontology. So a lot of the work here is method driven.

DS
What's next for you?

MN
I'm going to keep looking for fossils in the Gobi Desert with my team colleague Mark Norrel who's a dinosaur expert. He and I have worked together for about 20 years in various places in the world and we'll continue to bring this project along. We're also interested in other places in the world, Tibet, parts of China and maybe even Antarctica. But so far we've done so well in the Gobi it's hard to dislodge ourselves, we can't really turn our backs on it. We've spent more time out there than Andrews' expeditions by now because we had our ninth year, our ninth summer in the Gobi this year. And I don't intend to leave it not at least for the near future.

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