Pick from the Past
Natural History, March-April 1931

The Fate of the Rash Platybelodon

A prehistoric death trap yields its spoils—persistent exploration by
the Central Asiatic Expeditions in eastern Mongolia at last reveals the most
favorable conditions under which remains of ancient man might be found.

An expedition car near Kalgan  In a region in which, for centuries, camels have been the principal carriers, these motor cars have made possible a rapidity of movement which was formerly undreamed of.

I USED TO BELIEVE that conducting explorations in the field was child’s play in comparison to the difficulties of financing an expedition. But searching for the elusive dollar in the canon of Wall Street is infinitely less nerve-racking than trying to steer a safe course for an expedition’s ship between the rocks of Oriental diplomacy. Disturbed internal conditions and fluctuating politics present an almost insurmountable wall to the foreign explorer. Weeks and often many months are required before permission can be obtained to go into the field.

The Central Asiatic Expedition was fortunate in being able to continue its work in 1930, after a year’s delay due to Chinese objections. Official sanction, however, was not finally obtained until the middle of May, and we could not leave for Mongolia until the 20th of that month—just five weeks later than in previous years. A consultation decided us to send the camels to the place just south of the Outer Mongolian frontier, where we had discovered a jaw of the extraordinary shovel-tusked mastodon in the autumn of 1928. We had only partly explored that region and we hoped for great things in a more intensive study.

Some two or three million years ago in the Pleistocene period, a great lake had occupied this part of Mongolia. The shore-line was clearly delineated by masses of fresh-water shells. It was probable that along the borders of this inland sea there had been quicksand bogs and muddy river bottoms in those far distant days when the shovel-tusked mastodon roamed the savannahs of Mongolia. Bogs and quicksand acted as traps then just as they do today. They are one of the most fruitful sources of well-preserved fossils and we began an intensive exploration of the lake shore.

Camels arriving at Wolf Camp  It is not rare for the camels to be given spare tires to carry, and sections of worn casings are sometimes used as patches to protect cuts in the feet of these awkward burden bearers.

We pitched our tents on a flat plain overlooking a great basin, cut and slashed by the knives of wind and frost and rain into a thousand gaping wounds. Behind us stretched a plateau which flowed away in great sweeping billows, a seemingly flat expanse. It was only when a horse or a running antelope disappeared suddenly from the eye that one could realize that the plain was not as flat as the top of the table. We knew from previous explorations that this was a dangerous place, because for many miles in every direction it was a waterless expanse. Mongols could not live there except in winter; it was inhabited only by antelopes, wolves, and desert birds. We named our camping place Wolf Camp, because, during two months’ stay, we shot thirteen of these marauders which preyed upon the sheep and goats of the Mongols, in a village grouped about a marshy pond eight miles away on the lowlands.

Just below the tents on a narrow promontory, we discovered many outcrops of bones. When the deposit was opened, the skulls, jaws, and skeletal parts of baby mastodons far out- numbered all other animals. Evidently this had been a bog near the shore of the lake. Mother shovel-tusked mastodons with their babies had come here to drink or feed. The mud was comparatively shallow and, although both adults and young doubtless became mired, the mothers, because of their superior strength, were able to extricate themselves and sometimes get out their babies also. But others were not so fortunate and many of them had been left to die. The crowning specimen was the jaw and part of the skull of an unborn baby. It lay in the pelvic bones of an adult female, the only adult which we found in the deposit. Albert Thomson delivered the child with Walter Granger as consulting physician, while the rest of us in the clinic amused ourselves by calling them such insulting names as “palaeontological midwives.”

Roy Chapman Andrews  The leader of the Central Asiatic Expedition is shown here with his riding camel. Though the Expedition was dependent upon motor cars for many uses, camels continue to be essential for use in the most difficult regions.

The most spectacular discovery of the year was made six miles to the south of Wolf Camp by Pere Teilhard de Chardin. In an amphitheater, marked by a shining dome of pure white marl, hundreds of fossils were exposed upon the surface but all in a very restricted locality. Granger and Thomson, with their assistants, opened the deposit. They found great numbers of shovel-tusked jaws, skulls, and bones lying in a heterogeneous mass like a heap of giant jack straws. For six weeks the men worked in this one spot, taking out the most priceless specimens day after day. I used to sit on the edge of the escarpment just above them, drifting in imagination back to those past days when the waters of a beautiful lake filled the enormous basin. Where we worked, there had been a bay on the edge of which was a deep well of soft sticky mud. Probably it was covered by three or four feet of water on which grew a luxuriant mass of tubers and succulent aquatic plants—the favorite food of the shovel-tusked mastodon. One of these gigantic beasts plowed its way slowly along the shore of the bay, dredging up masses of trailing vegetation in its great spoon-shaped jaw. Then with its trunk or mobile lips the beast delicately selected choice bits and pushed them far back into its huge mouth to be masticated by the molar teeth. The plants floating over the death trap of mud enticed the mastodon farther and farther into the water. Suddenly it found that it could not withdraw its feet. Struggling madly in the grip of the clinging mud, it sank lower and lower until the water covered its head and the last struggles were those of a drowning beast. The trap remained baited and still other mastodons were lured into the well of death. Their huge bodies sank upon those that had gone before, until the pit was choked with masses of decomposing flesh. Eventually the lake dried up, but the bones remained entombed until we came to open the grave on that brilliant day in 1930. Seventeen great spoon-shaped jaws were taken out of this single deposit. With those obtained from the “baby pit,” the Museum has a superb age series representing almost every stage in growth from the unborn young to the adult bulls with jaws five and one-half feet long. This age series is only rivaled by that of the dinosaur Protoceratops, which demonstrates its growth from the egg up to the very old males.

Wolf Camp Showing a part of the “bad lands.” During the Expedition's stay in this vicinity, wolves wore often seen, hence the name bestowed on the camp.

The expedition spent two months at Wolf Camp, busy every moment on new and interesting discoveries. We might have remained all summer at this one site, for half a dozen other places were located which doubtless would have proved as rich as those tombs we had already opened. It is only in such deposits and in the river drift of ancient stream beds that we may hope to find the remains of primitive human types.

The summer’s work indicated that this entire region was so rich and important that several years of additional work were highly desirable. Upon cabled instructions from President Osborn, I went to Peking on 1st of September to open negotiations with the Committee for the Preservation of Ancient Objects. Mackenzie Young and I with one Chinese, Liu Shi-ku, drove down in two cars. During the summer the region had been remarkably clear of bandits, but it had been rumored that great quantities of opium were to be brought in from the west. This rich cargo had drawn bandits like flies to honey. A hundred and twenty miles from Kalgan the brother of one of our Mongols, Bato, told us that two Chinese cars had been robbed the night before and two men killed by thirty or forty brigands. He supposed that they were still there awaiting other victims and advised us not to go on. Mack and I, however, were heavily armed and decided to go through. Either the bandits had left or they were reluctant to attack us, because we reached Kalgan without a shot being fired. A week later, Mack returned accompanied by only Liu who drove the second car. Before he left Peking I had a strong presentiment that he would have trouble. It had been raining hard and the trail was very slippery. A hundred and ten miles from Kalgan a Mongol child ran out to the trail and told them that bandits had just stopped a caravan five miles away. Mack had either to turn back to Kalgan or else proceed and take his chance.

A shovel-tusked mastodon jaw  On the lower jaw of this extraordinary animal are two wide, flat tusks. With these the creature dug up the roots and plants from the mud along the lake shores, and from the collection thus made he picked out the edible portions with his trunk.
He decided to go on. At a tiny mud-walled house in the bottom of the valley, he saw the brigands dressed in Chinese soldier uniforms robbing a caravan of carts. He drove on as fast as possible, but when his car was opposite the house, the robbers opened fire with Luger pistols from behind a mud wall. Slowing up a little, Mack took a snap shot at one man who was doing the best shooting. His bullet struck a stone, went to pieces, and took off part of the bandit’s face. Another struck a second man in the shoulder. A little farther were a dozen robbers standing by their horses. They opened fire with rifles as Mack went by and then started to mount their ponies. He killed a horse and this so discouraged the brigands that they galloped away. It had been a neat little fight and the bandits had been taught a pretty severe lesson. Fortunately, neither Mack nor Liu were hit.

The whole Expedition returned a month later. Two days after they had reached Kalgan the entire region was taken over by bandits and all traffic on the plateau ceased. Had our people been delayed, the consequences would have been serious. It was only another evidence of the good luck which has been a constant factor in the success if the Central Asiatic Expeditions. The camels carrying our collections were met at a village thirty-four miles from Kalgan by Young and Liu and the fossils brought safely to Peking. I cannot speak too highly of the courage and loyalty of every man, native and foreign, of the Expedition’s staff. Through their splendid efforts the season’s work netted the largest collection of any year in Mongolia. Ninety-one cases of fossils were obtained. We all feel that in scientific importance, as well as in bulk, this year’s collections from eastern Mongolia will equal if not surpass those of any previous season. During all of the past years of our exploration, we have worked in central and western Mongolia where late Tertiary strata appear not to exist. Although we have opened a new volume in the history of the earth, the proper conditions under which human remains could be found were only discovered last year. It would be a scientific tragedy if lack of sympathy in China forces us to terminate our work.

Organized by the celebrated explorer Roy Chapman Andrews and sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, the Central Asiatic Expeditions consisted of five journeys into Mongolia and China, undertaken between 1922 and 1930. This extraordinary venture resulted in the first systematic study of what was then one of the earth’s least-known regions—the Gobi Desert. Audacious in concept, brilliantly planned and executed, the Central Asiatic Expeditions constituted the largest, best-equipped, and most costly program of land-based exploration ever launched from the United States up to that time. The budget totaled nearly $700,000—an unprecedented sum for such a project—and at the height of the most ambitious season, in 1925, the expedition included fourteen scientists and technicians, twenty-six native assistants, five touring cars, two trucks, and a caravan of one hundred twenty-five camels.

Using automobiles and supported by camel caravans that dropped fuel and supplies at rendezvous points, Andrews covered vast sections of the Gobi with a speed and efficiency never previously attained in desert terrain. Even by today’s standards, the geographical range and scientific achievements of these expeditions were impressive. Among the discoveries were rich fossil deposits that contained an enormous variety of extinct animals and plants, including the now-famous dinosaur eggs laid by a creature known as Protoceratops, which lived approximately 100,000,000 years ago. Excavations at numerous archeological sites yielded a wealth of artifacts relating to Paleolithic, Neolithic, and historical cultures. Extensive studies were made of Mongolia’s geology, an immense area of the Gobi was accurately mapped for the first time, and thousands of zoological and botanical specimens were collected.

These accomplishments often involved serious risks. In addition to natural hazards posed by the Gobi’s harsh environment, Andrews and his companions had to contend with Mongol bandits, Chinese civil wars, and severe political harassment. Eventually, they were even thrust into the forefront of Sino-American relations when the project became the target of antiforeign sentiment in China. Indeed, at the conclusion of the 1928 season the expedition’s collections—eighty-seven crates of fossils from Inner Mongolia—were temporarily confiscated by a militant group called the Committee for the Preservation of Ancient Objects; and only after prolonged negotiations between the American Museum, the Department of State, and the Chinese government was Andrews permitted to return to the field in 1930, when the events described in the following article occurred.

Unfortunately, 1930 proved to be the final season for the Central Asiatic Expeditions; despite a concerted effort by Andrews to continue his explorations, subsequent political developments in eastern Asia made further work impossible. “We had barely scratched the surface of the Gobi’s secrets,” he later wrote; and in terms of paleontology at least, this statement was remarkably prophetic. Intensive research conducted since World War II by Russian, Mongol, and Polish scientists has established the Gobi as one of the world’s most prolific fossil-hunting grounds—a fact Andrews had suspected as early as 1918 when he first began formulating plans for his historic venture.

—Charles Gallenkamp

Archeologist and writer Charles Gallenkamp's book Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions, a biography of Andrews, was published in 2001.

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