May 19, 2003 

is a production of
ScienCentral, Inc.
Making Sense of Science

Also of Interest
Mighty Mini Motor (video)

Protein Machine (video)

Smart Robots (video)

Instant Waterproofing (video)

Secret Sensor (video)

Rainbow X-Ray Vision (video)

Driving Blind (video)

Smart Ink (video)

Baby Talk (video)

Publish and Perish (video)

Strong Stuff (video)

What Sex Is Your Brain (video)

M.D. on a Chip (video)

Anger Gene (video)

Bio Detector (video)

NOVA News Minutes
Visit the NOVA News Minutes archive.
ScienCentral News and Nature
Nature genome promo logo
Don’t miss Enter the Genome
our collaboration with Nature.
Best of the Web!
Popular Science Best of the Web 2000
Selected one of Popular Science’s 50 Best of the Web.
Get Email Updates
Write to us and we will send you an email when a new feature appears on the site.
Fossil Fraud (video)
March 28, 2001


Elsewhere on the web

University of Texas’s deconstruction of the "archaeoraptor" fossil – includes a quicktime animation of the archaeoraptor slab sliced in planes parallel to the slab surface.

University of Texas High Resolution X-ray CT Facility

National Geographic’s statement from Feb 3, 2000

Analysis from The Guardian of London

More on the Origin of Birds (Reuters)

Are Birds Really Dinosaurs? – from the University of California Museum of Paleontology’s "DinoBuzz"

The Piltdown Plot – extensive look from Clark University into one of the greatest and most involved scientific frauds in history.

Piltdown Hoax – A shorter explanation of same, from Robert Todd Carroll’s Skeptic’s Dictionary

Fossil image gallery – from the American Museum of Natural History’s "Fighting Dinosaurs" exhibit


In November 1999, National Geographic Magazine published an article about what they thought was an amazing fossil discovery: a new species that appeared to be part dinosaur, part bird. "Archaeoraptor" was claimed to be the missing link between the two. A few months later, however, it was revealed to be a fake.

Now that fossil forgery is back in the news. As the ScienCentral News video report to the right shows, scientists using high-tech forensics have revealed exactly how the fossil was forged.


On Fakes and Fakers

More from ScienCentral News producer Joyce Gramza’s conversation with Timothy Rowe:

"There’s been a myth sort of floating around about this specimen—the idea that this was an inadvertent forgery, that this is something that was inadvertently built by some Chinese farmers, that it was perfectly innocent. But when we look at the specimen, look at the parts and the way they’re laid out on the block, look at the fact that it was smuggled out of China into the world’s largest gem and mineral show, the fact that the specimen sold for 80-thousand dollars on the commercial market—it suggests to me that whoever built this forgery had access to the rarest components of the rocks and fossils in this part of China, that they knew exactly what they were doing and how to build a missing link. And it points to people high up in the Chinese scientific organization, I think. And I think that’s a sort of disquieting fact, that the scientific value of the species is being compromised in favor of higher commercial values.

"I’ve since had a chance to look into the commercial market a bit, and as I go to rock shows and gem and mineral shows, I’ve seen many many forgeries, seen many specimens that have had excessive reconstruction—and it raises their commercial value tremendously. And I guess I’ve come to realize that once there’s money involved, these conflicts of interest arise. The scientific value of the specimen can be totally compromised to improve its cosmetic value and raise the sale price. So where there’s money involved, the rules change. It’s no longer just doing science.

"But in the case of very valuable precious fossils, it’s difficult for a curator or an owner to let you break a piece of it off to look at a cross-section to see if it’s really bone. It’s like if you had a great Italian violin and wanted to verify it, you’d be very unlikely to let someone do a destructive analysis and scrape some of the paint off or scrape some of the varnish off to be sure it’s authentic. Fossils are very much like works of art in that respect. But with the cat-scanning it’s nondestructive, it’s like a medical cat-scan where the patient gets up and walks away from the procedure when it’s all over. With our industrial scanner we can scan fossils, we can do it nondestructively, we can see them from the inside out and see what materials are inside. And it’s a very easy thing to see if it’s manmade materials or if it’s natural, or to see if the materials are all natural and have been glued together by some human agent. And so it provides a very valuable tool for us to discover forgeries. And I think it sets the bar much higher for forgers too—it’s very difficult to simulate natural properties of natural materials as you would have to do in order to fool the machine.

"And for more legitimate fossils it provides a means of a validation and documentation that can be used for insurance purposes, valuations, or for scientific research. So it’s got a wide range of applications, for scientists and in the commercial market.

archaeoraptor animated gif
This is the sequence in which the archaeoraptor forgery was constructed.
image: University of Texas
"Unfortunately archaeoraptor isn’t the only forgery that’s come here to our lab for scanning. A few months after the archaeoraptor specimen was here a second specimen came—this was brought to us by a very well-known researcher at one of the world’s great universities. This person brought to us the skull of a tiny primate, and it was a beautiful specimen, seemed to be a complete skull, uncrushed, still in the rock matrix, jaws slightly open and all this cranium that held its brain is complete and uncrushed. And what this person was hoping we could do is use our cat-scanner to see inside the fossil skull and to nondestructively pull out some of the information on the shape of the brain. And a few scans later we discovered that the entire thing was a forgery, that there was a little bit of real material in there—the rock matrix was real and some of the teeth real—but the specimen itself, when we looked at it in cross-section, we could see that it was sculpted out of a dental amalgam and the whole thing was a setup to look like a little skull still embedded in the matrix. This gentleman paid several thousand dollars for the specimen—it had come largely undocumented through the commercial dealers. We had a second specimen that we had already scanned, a beautiful genuine primate skull that’s about the same size and about the same age, and as he looked at the scans side by side he knew in a flash that what he had really was a forgery. And rather than blasting ahead and publishing on this thing, he wouldn’t touch it, he abandoned the specimen in our lab. And that’s really how the procedure should work. See what’s inside before you decide where to go with it."

About Search Login Help Webmaster
ScienCentral News is a production of ScienCentral, Inc.
in collaboration with the Center for Science and the Media.
248 West 35th St., 17th Fl., NY, NY 10001 USA (212) 244-9577.
The contents of these WWW sites © ScienCentral, 2000-2003. All rights reserved.
The views expressed in this website are not necessarily those of the NSF.
NOVA News Minutes and NOVA are registered trademarks of WGBH Educational Foundation and are being used under license.