Sloan, Christoper P., Sylvia & Stephen A. Czerkas | Three Volumes in the Archaeoraptor Controversy

  • First editions of three key works in the Archaeoraptor controversy, “one of the strangest episodes in modern paleontology” and “the dinosaur version of Piltdown Man” (Borger, ”Is it a bird? Is it a dinosaur? No, it’s a fake”, The Guardian, February 7, 2000). Included are the initial publication of the discovery of the “missing link” Archaeoraptor in the November 1999 issue of National Geographic, the correction by palaeontologist Xu Xing in the March 2000 issue, and the first edition of the follow-up book Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origins of Flight by the fossil’s original purchasers.

    China’s Liaoning province, home to fossil-rich siltstone deposits dating back 130 million years, has been a centre for paleontological activity since 1996, when the first known feathered dinosaur, Sinosauropyteryx, was discovered there. At the time, the origin of birds was hotly contested, with the scientific consensus being that they had evolved separately alongside the dinosaurs. But the feathered specimens being revealed in China complicated the picture. So when Stephen Czerkas was offered a fossil with the features of both a dinosaur and a bird by a Chinese dealer at the Tucson mineral show he believed that it was a significant scientific discovery, a “missing link” between the two.

    Czerkas and his wife Sylvia owned a small, private museum in Blanding, Utah, and he had a patron buy the fossil for $80,000, then hired palaeontologist Phil Currie to prepare a research report on it. Currie alerted National Geographic editor Chris Sloan, who offered to publish an article on the fossil if two conditions were met: the piece needed to run concurrently with an article in a reputable scientific journal, and the Czerkas’ would then return the obviously smuggled fossil to China rather than display it in the museum. At this point Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing and Timothy Rowe, a specialist in CT scanning at the University of Texas, were brought in to analyze the specimen. It quickly became clear that, like many fossils taken illegally from Liaoning, this one was a composite of multiple individuals, and potentially multiple species. Most notably, the tail did not seem to belong to the body.

    At this point “Currie agreed he had some concerns, but the Czerkases refused to believe there was a serious problem and pushed on for publication. Ultimately, both Nature and Science declined to publish a paper announcing a new species. This left National Geographic in the awkward position of officially doing so, as their print cycle and media machine were already too far ahead to pull the story” (Pickrell, “The Great Dinosaur Fossil Hoax”, Cosmos, July 27, 2015). Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, as it was dubbed, was revealed at a National Geographic press conference in October 1999 and described as a missing link between dinosaurs and birds in the article “Feathered Dinosaurs” in the November 1999 issue. The publication of a new species in a popular magazine before it was peer reviewed was immediately criticised, with Storrs Olson, curator of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, calling it “a nightmare” (Dalton, “Feathers fly over Chinese fossil bird's legality and authenticity”, Nature, vol. 403, February 2000).

    Then, in early 2000, “Xu proved Archaeoraptor was a fake. He found a counter slab bearing the tail – a mirror image created when a fossil has been split down the middle into two flat slabs of rock – in an institute in China in early 2000. But it was attached to the legs of a tiny undescribed dinosaur. This proved that the tail belonged to another specimen entirely and had been arranged in a false position in the Archaeoraptor fossil” (Pickrell). National Geographic was forced to issue a correction in the March 2000 issue, publishing a letter from Xu stating that there was no question the fossil was a composite.

    “Subsequent detailed CT scans by Rowe revealed that Archaeoraptor was glued together from 88 pieces of different individuals fossils. Mostly they came from two species unknown to science, making the specimens important in their own right. The tail was from Microraptor, then the smallest dinosaur ever discovered, while the front half was a primitive bird subsequently named Yanornis in a 2002 Nature paper entitled ‘Archaeoraptor’s better half’” (Pickrell).

    The third volume in the present set, Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight, was published by the Czerkas’s in 2002 and contains papers describing six new species of feathered dinosaurs, of which five are contested. The paper “A New Toothed Bird from China” by Stephen Czerkas and Xu Xing describes Archaeoraptor as a legitimate new species (rather than a combination of Yanornis and Microraptor), with only the Microraptor tail portion being from a separate fossil.

    The forgery’s effects were widespread. It highlighted the problem of smuggled and faked fossils from Liaoning and helped scientists develop new ways to detect them. It dealt a significant reputational blow to National Geographic, and the scandal was weaponised by opponents of evolutionary theory to delegitimise all transitional fossils. The most lasting result, however, was to delegitimise the then-emerging (and now widely accepted) theory that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. As Henry Gee, an editor at Nature, told the Guardian in early 2000, “The outfall has been extremely unfortunate. Of course, Piltdown man rears its ugly head. And it provides ammunition to a small and very vocal group of people who who are now starting to talk about collusion and conspiracy” (Borger).

  • "Feathered Dinosaurs" in National Geographic vol. 196, No. 5 [together with] National Geographic vol. 197, No. 3, [and] Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight. Washington D. C. [&] Blanding Utah: National Geographic Society [&] The Dinosaur Museum, 1999, 2000, 2002.

    3 volumes. The two issues of National Geographic complete in their original coloured wrappers. Feathered Dinosaurs is a quarto in the original glossy boards depicting a feathered dinosaur against a blue sky, dark blue endpapers. With the dust jacket. Colour illustrations throughout all three volumes. The National Geographics only very lightly rubbed and in excellent condition. Feathered Dinosaurs is an excellent copy with a little midl rubbing along some of the edges.