plunged into Outer Mongolia, heedless of sandstorms, civil wars
and armed bandits, for the sake of science
Chapman Andrews wore a ranger hat almost always carried
It was the fourth day of the expedition and Roy
Chapman Andrews must have had some doubts. His idea of searching
for fossils in the wastes of Mongolia had been controversial.
Several scientists had scoffed at the idea of looking for fossils
in the wilderness of Outer Mongolia saying that he might as
well look for them in the Pacific Ocean. Others thought it was
folly to try and determine the geology of a region which was
covered by so much shifting sand. Even Andrews had expressed
concerns himself on the day he left New York City for the trip.
In a meeting with Henry Osborn, president of the American Museum
of Natural History, which was sponsoring the exploration, Andrews
acknowledged that he was afraid the expedition would fail. "Nonsense,
Roy," Osborn had said, "The fossils are there, I know
they are. Go and find them."
Andrews was sitting in front of his tent, perhaps
pondering these matters, when two cars came careening into the
camp. Walter Granger, Andrew's chief paleontologist, jumped
out of one of the vehicles as it pulled to a stop. Granger and
some other scientists had taken a detour to look at some promising
outcrops with the intention of rendezvousing with the rest of
the group later at the campsite. As Granger approached Andrews,
he reached into his pockets and dug out several items including
bone fragments, a rhinoceros tooth and other various fossils.
Then Granger announced with a smile, "Well, Roy, we've
done it. The stuff is here."
Roy Chapman Andrews was born in Beloit, Wisconsin
in 1884. Andrews reported that from his earliest childhood he
had a desire for travel and adventure. "I was born to be
an explorer," he later wrote in his 1935 book The Business
of Exploring. "There was never any decision to make.
I couldn't do anything else and be happy." He also stated
that his only ambition in life was to work at the American Museum
of Natural History. Using money he saved from his job as a taxidermist,
he arrived in New York City in 1906 after graduating from Beloit
College. When Andrews applied for a job at the museum the director
told him there were no openings. Andrews persisted saying, "You
have to have somebody to scrub floors, don't you?" The
director admitted that he did. Andrews took the job explaining
that he wasn't interested in scrubbing just any floors "but
museum floors were different." A humble beginning for a
man destined to become one of the museum's most famous explorers
and later the director of the museum himself.
He started scrubbing floors in the taxidermy department
and soon was a member of the collecting staff. His first interest
was whales. He obtained for the museum a record sized right
whale that had come ashore on Long Island. Then he traveled
to Alaska, Japan, Korea and China to collect various marine
mammals. He wrote two papers about them and at the same time
completed his Masters of Arts in mammalogy from Columbia University.
In 1909 and 1910 he sailed as a naturalist on
the USS Albatross to the Dutch East Indies. In addition
to observing marine mammals, he collected specimens of some
of the snakes and lizards he saw. He preserved these specimens
by putting them in bottles filled with alcohol. After checking
his collection one day, he was amazed to see that the bottles
were almost dry. It turned out that the ship's quartermaster,
a hard-drinking man, had been sipping from the jars in a desperate
attempt to satisfy his alcohol addiction.
While in the jungles of southeast Asia, Andrews
had one of his first brushes with the dangers of exploring primitive
regions. He was walking down a jungle trail with his servant,
Miranda, when suddenly the young man grabbed Andrews by the
arm and pulled him backwards.
"A snake, Master! A big snake. There, right
in front of you on that tree! You shoot him quick!"
The boy pointed toward a branch overhanging the
trail, but Andrews could see nothing. Then a breeze blew the
branches around and Andrews caught sight of an ugly, flat head
and a black glittering eye. He realized that the "branch"
over the trail was actually a python
with a girth half that of a man's waist. He could see yards
and yards of its body through the thick jungle cover. Backing
up thirty feet, he brought up his gun and sent a bullet into
the animal's head.
The monster's withering coils snapped the trees
they were wrapped around and the animal fell to the ground.
The death throes of the snake were so violent they cleared the
jungle of brush for yards from around its body. It took a half
hour for the monster to die. When Andrews straightened out the
coils he paced the length at twenty feet. It had been waiting
above the trail to drop onto its next victim: a deer or a wild
pig, or, if Miranda had not warned him, Andrews himself.
By 1920 Andrews was ready for a new adventure.
For eight years he had been thinking about a grand scheme to
"reconstruct the whole past history of the Central Asian
plateau" including its geology, fossil life, past climate
and vegetation. He wanted to also make a collection of its living
animals, fish and birds. In short it would be a complete scientific
survey of that vast area called Outer Mongolia. Toward this
end he invited the museum president, Henry Fairfield Osborn,
to lunch. Afterward Andrews recalled, Osborn leaned back in
his chair, lit his pipe and asked, "Well, Roy, what is
on your mind?"
Andrews explained his plan and Osborn was very
interested. Osborn's pet theory was that Central Asia was a
"staging ground" for life. From it, dinosaurs and
later mammals and man dispersed across the face of the earth.
An expedition like Andrews proposed might confirm his theory.
After he had thought about Andrews plan Osborn replied, "Roy,
we've got to do it."
Planning for the expedition was extensive. Mongolia
was a large and uninhabited region a thousand miles length and
width. In the center was the Gobi desert, where during the summer
months temperatures could reach 110 degrees during the day,
while at night they would plunge to near freezing. Dozens of
scientists with different specialties from cartographers to
zoologists would be needed with the group. To transport the
researchers Andrews decided to use a fleet of Dodge automobiles.
In addition, a caravan of 125 camels loaded with food, gasoline,
and replacement parts would be their supply line. This massive
exploration wouldn't be over in just a single season. The scientists
would stay in Asia for at least five years, retreating to Peking
for the winters.
The danger of Mongolia wasn't just from the extreme
climate. Politically the area was unstable. China, which controlled
inner Mongolia, was engaged in a series of civil wars. Russia,
which controlled Outer Mongolia, was just recovering from its
revolution. Neither exerted much control over the region and
there was much anarchy. Outer Mongolia was notorious for armed
bandits that roamed the land.
Despite these difficulties, in April of 1922 Andrew's
Dodge cars rolled through a gate in the Great Wall of China,
headed for parts unknown. The first big find of the trip were
fossils of a Baluchitherium. The Baluchitherium
was a kind of giant rhinoceros that had lived during the ice
age. One of the drivers had noticed its jaw lying exposed at
the bottom of a V-shaped gully. Andrews discovered much of the
rest of the animal's body on the other side of a ridge. The
expedition was able to recover nearly a full skeleton, including
a huge skull embedded in a block of sandstone. Andrews said
after first finding the skull, "I knew it was time to stop
for I was too excited to do further prospecting."
Roy Chapman Andrews the Real Indiana Jones?
every article written about Roy Chapman Andrews suggests
he was the model for the fictional adventurer/archaeologist
Indiana Jones, but was he? George Lucas has apparently
never cited Andrews as the inspiration for the
character. However, in 1977 he did tell Steven Spielberg
when they first discussed the concept for the movie
trilogy that he had been inspired by movie serials he
had seen in the 1940's and the 1950's. It is likely
that the writers for those films, in turn, had been
inspired by the real-life adventures of explorers like
Andrews from a generation before. Although Andrews was
the most high profile of these explorers it is possible
that other figures, like Percy
Fawcett and W. Douglas Burden
also contributed to the archetype of the dashing adventurer/scientist
that appeared in those Saturday afternoon B flicks that
Lucas enjoyed as a kid.
The skull and the surrounding sandstone were removed
from the ground and covered with burlap soaked in plaster to
protect it. Andrews sent it back to China. The party carrying
it was threatened by bandits, but managed to get it onto a steamer
bound for New York City. The fossil arrived at the museum on
December 19th, 1922. Later Osborn wrote that the discovery of
the skull and its transportation to the United States was one
of the greatest events in the history of paleontology. Until
this time the Baluchitherium had only been known through
a few bone fragments and part of a jaw. Now scientists could
tell what the creature looked like. It stood seventeen feet
high at the shoulder and was twenty-four feet long.
Eggs and Snakes
The most famous find of Andrew's central Asia
expeditions was made on July 13, 1923. George Olson, a paleontology
assistant, came back to camp saying that he had found some fossil
eggs at the Flaming Cliffs of Shabarakh Usu. At first Andrews
was skeptical thinking that they were probably some natural
formation, but after tea he and some of the other scientists
went with Olson to look at his find. Upon seeing them, there
was no doubt. Three eggs and some shell fragments lay weathering
out of the sandstone. The scientists were in shock. The eggs
clearly lay embedded in rock laid down during the Cretaceous
period. Yet there were few birds alive during the Cretaceous
and none had been found in the area. The group concluded that
these must be dinosaur eggs, the first ever found. Up to this
point scientists were not sure if dinosaurs laid eggs or gave
birth to live young. The speculation that what they had found
were dinosaur eggs was confirmed when the body of a small toothless
dinosaur was found on top of the nest. The dinosaur was later
named oviraptor. Because of its sharp beak and its proximity
to the nest which was full of what they thought were protoceratops
eggs, the scientists assumed the animal had been stealing the
eggs to eat. It took fifty years for scientists to realize that
the oviraptor wasn't stealing the eggs, but guarding them. The
ring of eggs was an oviraptor nest, not a protoceratops
The price of these discoveries was the danger
and difficulty of working in the Gobi. Andrews recounts that
one time the expedition camped on a high promontory that jutted
out into the desert "like the prow of an enormous ship."
Fossils were abundant along the edges of the promontory and
most members of the expedition had discovered something of interest
by the end of the first day. They also noticed a large number
of poisonous vipers in the area. Some members of the expedition
were forced to kill a few.
The expedition stayed at the site for a few days
without incident until one night when the temperature suddenly
dropped to near freezing. Andrews wasn't sure what snake instinct
could have told the vipers that the camp's tents would be warm
and inviting, but they arrived "not in twos or threes but
in dozens." Norman Lovell, a motor engineer, woke up at
two o'clock in the morning to see a huge serpent wriggling in
his tent door. He was going to get out of bed to try and get
the creature out of his tent, but wisely decided to first have
a look around using his flashlight. He found two more vipers
coiled around the legs of his cot. Using a pickax to kill the
serpents, he got his shoes on to search for the original intruder
when a huge viper crawled out from where it had been hiding
near the head of his bed.
The whole camp was soon awake and in an uproar.
The cook found there was one viper in bed with him. One of the
Chinese chauffeurs found a serpent coiled in his cap. Not only
were there dozens of the creatures already in the camp, but
more were approaching from the edges of the promontory.
Andrews stepped out of his tent onto what he thought
was a snake. "I must have jumped three feet straight up
and what I yelled made blue sparks in the air" he recounted.
Fortunately the object he had stepped on was only a piece of
rope. Nobody got any more sleep that night and the next morning
the group spent hours removing snakes from gun cases, duffle
bags and blankets. Amazingly, none of the men were bitten, although
Andrew's dog, Wolf, did get nipped by a small snake, causing
him a few hours of sickness.
The expedition stayed at the site for two more
days, but despite killing about forty-seven snakes, the number
of serpents seeking shelter on cold nights never seemed to diminish.
It seemed likely that sooner or later somebody was going to
get bitten, so the group packed their equipment and drove off
one September morning, leaving this promising location to the
Mammal Skulls and Sandstorms
Possibly the most significant find of these expeditions
was not a large fossil, but a very small one. In 1923 Walter
Granger discovered a tiny skull embedded in a chunk of sandstone
from the Cretaceous period. He labeled it "an unidentified
reptile" and sent it back to the museum for further analysis.
In 1925 a letter came back from the museum. The skull had been
from a mammal, not a reptile. Mammal remains from the age of
the dinosaurs were practically nonexistent, and those that had
been found up to this point belonged to a group that subsequently
became extinct. Granger's skull, however, had come from a line
of mammals related to those alive today. The letter begged Granger
to "do your utmost to get some other skulls." Within
an hour of getting the letter, Granger had found another skull.
For seven days all other activity stopped while members of the
expedition searched for additional mammal remains. They found
six more skulls from several different mammal species, causing
Andrews to term the week, "possibly the most valuable seven
days of work in the whole history of paleontology up to date."
Shortly after finding the skulls the expedition
nearly lost them. Andrews awoke one night with what he said
was "a strange feeling of unrest vibrating every nerve."
He put on his holster over his pajamas and circled the camp,
but found nothing wrong. He still couldn't sleep and soon noticed
that the sound of the wind was becoming a continuous roar "getting
louder every second." Suddenly the tent was knocked over
by the first blast of a desert storm. Fortunately it was soon
At dawn the group rose to see a tawny-colored
cloud coming toward them and soon a second storm struck. This
one was more violent and longer lasting than the first. The
tents were swept away and only by quick action did Granger save
the box that contained the priceless Cretaceous mammal skulls.
Andrew's pajama top was torn off his back and his skin was lashed
with sand until it bled. When the storm suddenly ceased, the
remains of the camp were deposited over a half-mile-wide section
of desert. Andrews stated that fortunately the automobiles had
been parked facing the wind, otherwise the cars would have been
An even more severe sandstorm hit the expedition
one day as they were at their excavation sites. Andrews found
the dust so thick that he could barely breath. Not being able
to see, he found a hollow were he sheltered against the storm.
Granger found safety in a pit, or so he thought, until the wind
blew in enough sand and gravel to bury him up to his neck, nearly
suffocating him. The sand so severely blasted the windshields
of the cars that they had to be knocked out so the drivers could
see before the vehicles could be driven again.
Wars and Bandits
In the beginning bandits and civil wars had been
more of a nuisance than a real threat. Andrews had equipped
the expedition with rifles and carried his own revolver at all
times. He even had a machine gun mounted on one of the cars.
Once the bandits realized he had guns and would use them, they
tended to leave the expedition alone. In one famous incident
Andrews was in his auto, scouting ahead of the rest of the expedition,
when he ran into three bandits on horseback. When Andrews saw
them about to draw their rifles, he floored the accelerator
on his car and drove at them at full speed, while at the same
time firing his revolver. The Mongol horses, not accustomed
to cars, started bucking madly. Andrews later wrote, "The
only thing the brigands wanted to do was get away, and they
fled in panic. When I last saw them they were breaking all speed
records on the other side of the valley."
According to legend, expedition archeologist Nels
C. Nelson had a run-in with bandits and didn't even need a gun
to escape. Nels, who had a glass eye, removed it and showed
it to the bandits who fled in terror.
Civil wars raged in the area, but troops generally
respected the expedition (which flew an American flag) and let
it pass through the battlelines. This changed in 1926. While
traveling outside Peking, they suddenly ran into a contingent
of soldiers who could clearly see their flag but to whom it
didn't seem to make one bit of difference. "...Bullets
began spattering around us like hailstones," Andrews wrote,
"They had opened fire with a machine gun but it was aimed
too low and the bullets were kicking up the dust just in front
of us." Andrews turned the car around and fled. "The
bullets now were buzzing like a swarm of bees just above our
heads." Houses they had passed earlier that had seemed
to be deserted were actually filled with soldiers that were
now firing at them. "For three miles we ran the gauntlet
of firing from both sides of the road."
Andrews emerged from that incident safely, but
as time went by it became increasingly more difficult for the
expedition to operate in Mongolia. The Russians accused him
of spying. The Chinese were become suspicious that the Museum
was stealing priceless Chinese treasures. Ironically, Andrews
caused some of this misunderstanding himself by auctioning off
an extra dinosaur egg as a publicity stunt to raise money for
the expedition. It had brought $5,000, confirming to the Chinese
and Mongolians that foreigners were profiting at their expense.
Andrews was forced to cancel the 1926 and 1927
expeditions. He tried in 1928, but managed only to get into
Inner Mongolia. After the expedition returned, their collection
was seized by the "Society for the Preservation of Cultural
Objects." Andrews had to spend six weeks negotiating with
them to get the fossils back.
1929 expedition was canceled and in 1930 Andrews made one more
attempt to explore Mongolia. They found a graveyard of rare
shovel-tusked mastodons, along with other outstanding fossils.
Despite this success, Andrews finally had to admit that conditions
in Mongolia now made it too dangerous to continue the work there.
So ended the museum's Central Asiatic Expedition, and with it
the golden era of big scientific expeditions. Andrews returned
to the States and four years later took over as director of
the museum. In 1942 he left the museum and moved to California
where he spent the rest of his life writing about his experiences.
He died in Carmel in 1960.
Yet, Andrew's legacy lives on as scientists still
study and rediscover fossils he found in the Gobi. Sixty years
later the Museum would return to the Gobi at the invitation
of the Mongolian government and a new round of important discoveries
would take place, built on the original work of Roy Chapman
Andrews and his brave companions.
to Virtual Exploration Society
Copyright Lee Krystek
2001. All Rights Reserved.