The Fate of the Rash Platybelodon

A Prehistoric Death Trap Yields Its Victims to the Explorer

expedition car

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

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, author of Dragon Hunter, a biography of Andrews.

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 are 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.

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