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Dinosaur Fossils Part of Longtime Chinese Tonic

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
July 13, 2007
 
When Chinese villagers were recently discovered grinding dinosaur fossils into traditional elixirs, the incident was reported worldwide as a time-bending oddity of modern-day China.

Yet such fossils have probably been key ingredients in Chinese "dragon bone" medicines for the past 25 centuries.

(Related: "Dino-Era Fossils Inspired Monster Myths, Author Says" [June 17, 2005].)

The practice came to light for Dong Zhiming, a paleontologist at Beijing's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, during his latest research dig in the central Chinese province of Henan.

Dong was drawn to the site after stories started circulating across China about villagers in Henan who had discovered massive dragon bones and were mixing them into homeopathic tonics, he told the Associated Press.

When Dong arrived, the villagers told him they believed that the bones were from dragons flying in the sky, the AP reported.

What he actually found was the hundred-million-year-old remains of a plant-eating dinosaur.

For decades, peasants in Henan have been giving dinosaur-powder drinks to children to cure cramps or dizziness, as well as applying a fossil-based paste to fractures and wounds.

A Mythical Twist to Modern-Day

Dong's dig has uncovered a curious mix of findings on dinosaurs and on ancient Chinese beliefs surrounding dragons.

Dragons appeared in Chinese mythology more than 3,000 years ago and are worshiped as guardians of waterways, mountains, or skies.

Xu Xing, arguably China's top "dinosaur hunter," said many villagers—and even some people in Chinese cities—still believe in dragons. The Chinese characters for dinosaur even combine the words for "terror" and "dragon."

When asked how 21st-century Chinese could retain a belief in mythological beasts, Xu countered: "How can so many Americans still disbelieve in evolution?"

U.S. folklore historian Adrienne Mayor said discoveries of fossilized dinosaurs by ancient Chinese might have given birth to the earliest myths of dragons in the East, just as similar findings in Greece gave rise to tales of the Cyclops and Titans. (Related: "Cyclops Myth Spurred by "One-Eyed" Fossils?" [February 5, 2003].)

The ancients collected and displayed huge fossils, said Mayor, who is also a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

"They made up stories about the immense bones. They thought these were the remains of the one-eyed Cyclops, of giants, griffins, monsters, dragons, and mighty heroes of myth."

Mayor also suggested that the sudden appearance of dinosaur fossils following thunderstorms might have been misinterpreted in Chinese antiquity. Heavy rains would wash away soil to expose the bones, which some may have seen as the remains of dragons that had somehow fallen from grace—and been condemned to die a mortal's death on Earth.

For centuries, Chinese farmers have supplied fossil relics to apothecaries, who probably became China's first organizers of primitive dinosaur digs.

A belief in the curative power of fossils has even crossed the continents, she added.

"There are many examples of ingesting dinosaur-bone powder or tea around the world, from antiquity to the present day, from ancient Greece and Rome to Native American tribes," Mayor said.

However, no evidence has been found to suggest dino discoveries led to early dragon mythology, according to Chinese fossil expert Xu.

Chinese "Dino Rush"

Today, many Chinese villagers have begun perceiving dinosaurs as potential sources of wealth, Xu said.

Well-publicized dinosaur finds across China since the turn of the century have spurred peasants to embark on their own amateur digs in a bid to get rich, he added.

Local government officials in Henan and in other parts of China where fossilized dinosaurs are found have begun warning villagers about criminal penalties for stealing or selling fossils. But it is unclear how effective these campaigns have been.

"The skyrocketing financial value of all high-quality dinosaur fossils [worldwide]" is making clandestine dinosaur digs more and more lucrative, said David Eberth, a scholar at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta, Canada.

"All indications point to a mounting and robust illegal trade in dinosaur remains, especially from Liaoning, Inner Mongolia, and Hebei," Eberth said.

Xu said the growing ranks of "peasant-paleontologists" and the illegal excavations are a side effect of China's growth in the area of dinosaur discoveries and research.

James Clark, a paleontology professor at George Washington University, agreed. Clark said China's Jurassic- and Cretaceous-era fossils are now attracting the world's leading paleontologists in a 21st-century "dino rush."

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