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Fossil fakery article in New Scientist

Here's a draft version of an article I wrote on fossil fakery that appears in this week's issue of New Scientist. It does not include final editing changes, which I don't have in electronic form. I do not know if it's up on the magazine's web site because I couldn't get in a few minutes ago. -- Jeff Hecht


Beautiful fossils of Chinese birds offered for sale often are too good to be true. Although no one has reported complete fabrications, many on the market are composites assembled from broken fossils, have had sculpted materials added to replace missing pieces, or have been painted to emphasize missing or barely perceptible details. "Almost every one that I've seen on the commercial market has some reconstruction to make it look prettier," Kraig Derstler, a paleontologist at the University of New Orleans in Louisiana.

Many early paleontologists saw nothing wrong with adding missing parts, although that caused such mistakes as mounting the skull of Camarasaurus on the body of Apatosaurus. The infamous Piltdown Man fraud probably was intended as a prank. Now the high prices being paid for well-preserved Chinese bird fossils have made forgery profitable. Over the past twenty years, "adhesives and fake rock have become very easy to make and very difficult to spot," says Derstler.

Problems start with the Chinese peasants who excavate most of the bird fossils. They quickly learned that the most complete fossils earned them the most money. The fossils often split along the plane of the bones, giving them two sides of a single animal, called a part and counterpart. If they're missing the right leg, "they'll cut out the counterpart of the left leg and make it into a right leg," says Larry Martin of the University of Kansas. Chinese museums get some untouched specimens from farmers, but others have added parts, says Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Some composites are good enough to fool professionals. Chiappe recalls one specimen that aroused his suspicions. "I wasn't sure what was wrong with it, " but measurements showed that one leg was longer than the other. Only when he started preparing it did he find he mortar that had glued two slabs together. "On the surface you really couldn't see that," says Chiappe. Martin says "at the moment, I don't trust any of these specimens until I see the X rays," which reveal joints or voids within the rock. Usually the pieces come from the same species, but in the case of Archaeoraptor ["Piltdown bird," New Scientist, Jan 29] someone had added a dinosaur tail to a bird body. "The farmers do not believe this is wrong," says Martin, "they look at is as restoring an art object to make it more marketable."

"The whole commercial market for fossils has gotten riddled with fakery," complains Martin. Derstler says shrimp and fish from Lebanon often are pained to enhance their appearance. The problem is particularly bad for the valuable Chinese fossils, which continue being smuggled out of the country ["Psst...wanna triceratops" New Scientist 14 December 1996] despite protests by scientists and claims of official crackdowns. Smuggled specimens typically go through multiple hands and two or three rounds of preparation before being sold. Fragile fossils are glued to more solid slabs, and preprators in America, Italy, or Germany often sculpt feet or skulls from adhesives mixed with ground rock from the fossil itself to replace missing pieces. "You can't spot it without a microscope, or ultraviolet or X rays," says Derstler. "The worst are the ones that paint the feathers on. By that time, the fossils are useless for science."

Jeff Hecht Boston Correspondent New Scientist magazine
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