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Roy Chapman Andrews

Andrews plunged into Outer Mongolia, heedless of sandstorms, civil wars and armed bandits, for the sake of science

Roy Chapman Andrews wore a ranger hat almost always carried a revolver.

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."

Scrubbing Floors

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.

Central Asiatic Expedition

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.

Giant Rhinoceros

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."

Was Roy Chapman Andrews the Real Indiana Jones?

Almost 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.

Dino 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 nest.

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 snakes.

Cretaceous 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 over.

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 overturned.

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.

Civil 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.

The 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.

Return to Virtual Exploration Society

Copyright Lee Krystek 2001. All Rights Reserved.


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