“This new discovery has thrown a lot of us for a loop,” he says. “It’s either really a new dinosaur, which would be awesome, or it’s been tampered with and I really hope that’s not the case. The authors worked really hard to demonstrate that it hasn’t, using the best tools at their disposal. But I wonder if we have the right tools, since the fakes are so sophisticated.”
No matter their views on Halszkaraptor, everyone I spoke to agreed that fossil forgery is a surprisingly serious problem. There’s a long history of hoax fossils, like the infamous Piltdown Man—a human skull that was glued to an orangutan’s jaw, and presented as a missing link in human evolution. That was in 1912, but a century on, fake or doctored specimens still abound in fossil shows, private collections, and even in small regional museums.
These bogus specimens aren’t cries for attention. “In my experience, I’ve never seen a single specimen that was made by the scientific community to get more publicity,” says Mark Norell, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Instead, they’re almost always the work of people trying to earn a buck—often poor farmers in China.
There is a lucrative market in fossils, which owes much of its existence to Sue, a beautifully preserved Tyrannosaurus that was unearthed in 1990 and auctioned for $7.6 million. After her sale, “a modern gold rush began, and it has not let up,” wrote Paige Williams in The New Yorker. Fossils became status symbols, attracting wealthy buyers and unscrupulous vendors. An extensive black market arose, connecting fossil-rich sites like China and Mongolia and anyone with money to burn and a penchant for trophies from another age.
The fakes are sometimes created from whole cloth—or rather, from whole plaster. These are usually crude and easy to recognize. Currie remembers seeing photos of an alleged Archaeopteryx—a pivotal species which helped to show that birds evolved from other dinosaurs. It was in Beijing, but after Currie flew over, “within three seconds of seeing it, I knew it was 100 percent fake,” he says. The weight of it was wrong. The texture of the bone was wrong. No actual paleontologist would be fooled, but Currie found several such fakes in tourist shops, all with expensive price tags.
In many ways, the market in forged fossils is similar to the one in forged artworks, says Norell, who has a foot in both worlds. When he attends the gargantuan annual fossil show in Tuscon, he takes the same equipment that he uses to examine fine art, like a special ultraviolet light. “I have a carbide needle that I can heat up with a lighter and push onto something,” he says. “If it’s real, guys will let you do it. If it has epoxy, they won’t.”
Some phonies are harder to spot. Currie recalls seeing a Tarbosaurus—a Mongolian relative of Tyrannosaurus—that “looked pretty good and was sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.” When his team analyzed it with a medical scanner, they showed that just a single bone in the jaw was real. “It was convincing enough that we couldn’t be sure how much was real and how much wasn’t.”