Field of Science

Roy Chapman Andrews and the Kingdom of the Cretaceous Skulls

According to pop-culture, one of the most well-known adventurers and archaeologists in movie history, Dr. Henry Walton "Indiana" Jones, was loosely based on the real naturalist, adventurer and mammologist Roy Chapman Andrews.

"Roy Andrews Chapman on Kublai Khan" (ANDREWS 1921).

Roy Chapman Andrews (1884 -1960) was an American explorer, adventurer, naturalist, mammologist and later director of the American Museum of Natural History.

In his youth, he financed his study by offering services as a taxidermist, a self-taught skill. After graduation, he tried to get a job at the Natural History Museum, but there were no positions vacant. Chapman did not surrender and responded that he was even willing to clean the floors if this could him bring into the Museum.
Surprised by such enthusiasm, he was hired as a janitor and assistant taxidermist. Maybe to mock him in a friendly way, he was assigned every morning to mop the floors in the taxidermy studio; the afternoons were then devoted to real taxidermy.

By hard work Andrews managed to get some attention and he was granted a raise in salary, a full-time job as a taxidermist and asked to guide guests in the Muse
um. In 1907 he was sent on his first expeditions. A whale carcass was washed ashore of Long Island and the Museum hoped to recover the skeleton. Chapman and a colleague were sent to the site, where they discovered that a storm was slowly covering the carcass with sand. For two days they fought the cold sea and the icy wind, only after a week and with the help of local fishermen, the skeleton could be recuperated.

Andrew visited Japan and China, where he collected animals. In 1920 he convinced paleontologist and museum president Fairfield Osborn to finance an expedition into Asia in search of fossils of the early ancestors of major mammalian lineages, including humans. The expedition had a quite racial undertone, intended to demonstrate that the white race had no connection to Asian races, regarded at the time as inferior.

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, flash floods, bandits, civil war and an insecure political equilibrium.
The goals of the expeditions, carrie
d out with an odd combination of early automobiles and camels, was to recover geographical, archaeological, botanical, zoological and geological information, but especially fossils of early hominids.
  "Relief map of Mongolia showing routes, Central Asiatic Expeditions, 1922-1930.", from ANDREWS 1932.
 "Camel and motor car tires" and "Andrews and Tserin at Hatt-In-Sumu, 1928" from ANDREWS 1932.

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 discovered bones of dinosaurs and mammals, and also an egg, thought to be from a bird. Only hours after the discovery of the site the expedition was forced to turn back - winter was approaching fast in the Gobi - but they decided to return the next years. "The Flaming Cliffs of Djadokhta" (Southern Mongolia), type locality of the Upper Cretaceous Djadoktha Formation, from BERKEY & MORRIS 1927.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 gryphon lookalike Protoceratops, or the birdlike Velociraptor, but most scientifically spectacular - rare bones and skulls of Cretaceous mammals, like Zalambdalestes, Djadochtatherium, and Deltatheridium, and oddly enough clusters of large fossil eggs. Eggs of dinosaurs were extremely rare, previous of Chapman only one site on the French Riviera was known with such fossils.
  "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.

Roy Chapman Andrews was a gifted storyteller. He published various accounts of his expeditions and loved to present himself 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 similarities to be spotted between Indiana Jones and 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 revolver and a fedora hat. Various expedition photos of Andrew show him with a broad rimmed hat and during expeditions he loved to hunt animals. Once he used his pistols also to defend the expedition from bandits.
However, both producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg claim that their fictional character is based mostly on their impressions of matinée serials and pulp magazines of the 1930s-1940s. There is no official confirmation that Indiana is based on a single or a true historic character. However, Andrews (and many other naturalists and explorers of the 18th and 19th century) without doubt influenced by their discoveries, accounts and especially books the general view and love of the public for adventurers. In a certain way, Andrews became part of the Indiana Jones universe (and let us admit, who was not inspired a bit by the Indy-style?)


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

1 comment:

  1. Hi David,

    This is a great post! I urge you to consider submitting it to the Geological Society of America's History and Philosophy of Geology Division for publication in GSA Today under their Rock Stars series. Here's how:


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