Thursday, August 22

Griffins and Baluchitheria

We drive to Bayanzag in the late afternoon, anxious to catch sunset at the Flaming Cliffs. It is overcast, there are puddles in the track-ruts from the afternoon's hailstorm. In the distance towards Bayankhongor there is more devilry - a dust storm hanging out on the horizon. A rainbow comes out.

This is dinosaur territory. The first fossilized dinosaur eggs were discovered in the 1920s in the cliff formation we are heading towards. The discovery was made by the team of Roy Chapman Andrews - American explorer, naturalist, crack-shot, writer, radio personality, teller-of-tall-tales, and, some say, the prototype for Indiana Jones. The fossil eggs were initially thought to belong to Protoceratops:  the most prominent species of this genus is called Protoceratops andrewsi in his honor. Protoceratops ("first horned face") was a lion-sized beast with a beak and a neck-frill, that roamed these parts 75 million years ago.  Its fossils show a lanky quadruped's body, a beaked face, and wing-like frills coming out of the shoulder or neck.

Actually, the expedition cameraman J.B. Shackelford saw the first Protoceratops fossil (across the border in Gansu); it is not recorded who saw the eggs, but the boss got the credit. Each egg was about eight inches in length, and hatchlings are estimated to have been about twelve inches from beak to tail. Due to the proximate abundance of Protoceratops fossils, these eggs were believed at the time to belong to P. andrewsi. Further, due to the discovery of an Oviraptor (a theropod dinosaur that lived at the same time) skeleton in a Protoceratops nest, the former was thought to consume the eggs of the latter (hence the name egg-stealer.) The Oviraptor skull was found crushed, and it was speculated that the injury was received by a Protoceratops mother defending her brood from the predator. However, in 1993, it was discovered that inside the supposed Protoceratops egg was an Oviraptor embryo; that is, the original find represented Oviraptor brooding behavior rather than a failed attempt at nest-raiding. In addition, in 2011 a nest of young P. andrewsi was discovered in Mongolia, so it seems both P and O were doting moms.

P. andrewsi may have been at the root of the mythical creature known as the griffin. Griffins were described as winged lions with eagle faces - the prominent features were lion-limbs ending in talons, a raptor-beak'd-countenance, and wings; they laid their eggs in nests on the ground. Folklorist Adrienne Mayor has suggested the first fossils of "griffins" were found by ancient Saka nomads digging for gold in these Altai Mountains. Greek writers began describing the griffin around 675 BCE, around the age when Greeks first made contact with Saka nomads. In some places the populations mixed. Griffins were described by the Greeks as guarding gold deposits in the arid hill'd red sandstone formations of the wilderness; these creatures are a prominent motif in Scythian gold-work. The South Gobi region of Mongolia, where many exquisitely preserved Protoceratops fossils are found,  is rich in red sandstone as well as gold runoff from the Altai mountains, lending some credence to the theory that P. andrewsi is the basis of the griffin myths.

Above, a golden Saka necklace showing two griffins tear into a horse. Below, a cup excavated from the Marlik site in Gilan, Iran, dated c. 500 BC, showing griffins in the top band.

(As an aside, Herodotus says of the Gilanis: They have all deep blue eyes, and bright red hair. There is a city in their territory, called Gelonus, which is surrounded with a lofty wall, thirty furlongs each way, built entirely of wood. All the houses in the place and all the temples are of the same material. Here are temples built in honour of the Grecian gods, and adorned after the Greek fashion with images, altars, and shrines, all in wood. There is even a festival, held every third year in honour of Bacchus, at which the natives fall into the Bacchic fury. For the fact is that the Geloni were anciently Greeks, who, being driven out of the factories along the coast, fled to the Budini and took up their abode with them. They still speak a language half Greek, half Scythian.)

Roy Chapman Andrews walked up to the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag in 1922 and found fossils practically grinning at him from the hillside. As the party walked up to the formation, they could see giant bones sticking out of the ground. One of the first items of loot was the skull of a Baluchitherium. This largest-of-all-mammals-ever had roamed the region 30 million years ago, and had been discovered in fossil form in 1911 in Baluchistan, and to date only another fossil had been found in Turkestan in 1919. Chapman cabled back (during a 3 day trip to Peking, to make sure his wife and children, and those of the other expedition members, were safe from the anti-Christian sentiments that were then being stoked):

"Men, cars safe. Three thousand miles. Mongolia expedition discovers vast fossil fields, rich cretaceous, tertiary deposits. Skull baluchitherium. Complete skeletons small dinosaurs. Skulls rhinoceros. Twenty thousand feet film. Two thousand mammals. Mapped large area. Extremely important geological discoveries."

The expedition also found Velociraptor mongoliensis, the first Asian dromaeosaurid discovered. As its close relatives are found in North America (these are the fast-movers of Jurassic Park), it is suggested that a land bridge was extended between the two continents in the late Cretaceous. Below, a recreation of Baluchitherium, which looks like one tapir two giraffes tall and three elephants long.

Here is some hundred-year-old footage of Mongolia, incorporating parts of those 20000 feet of Shackelford's film that have survived:

Ever since we left Dalanzadgad for the Gobi, there has been no connection with the outside world, except brief snatches of AM radio in Bulgan (there is a huge radio mast that can be seen ~10 miles west of soum; the ger dwellers of course have satellite TV.) At the Gobi Discovery camp in Khongoryn Els, there was one cook whose phone famously got a signal at one notorious corner of the water tank.  We camped out under the tank in faint hope that its cylindrical geometry helped concentrate photons, but alas, only the cook's phone worked at this location (I checked this out, since I talked to 'Zaya on her way out, sitting over a rusty bucket.) On the way to Bayanzag, at Dal Bag my phone suddenly - finally! - chirps up and starts mailing out pictures from the email outbox at high speed, and I am forced to decide on importunate calendar-invites weeks out in the future. At the top of the cliffs, 'Zaya gets phone signal too, and anxiously calls her sister to check on little Naranhueslen in Ulaanbaatar.

We scramble down to the bottom of the canyon. Not only are there pebbly fossils everywhere (you can apparently bite them to test - rock tastes like rock, fossils don't; we didn't try fossil.) There are also more recent camel bones, picked clean and bleached white, against the red soil. Rain from the past day has collected in puddles that are beginning to dry and flake. The clouds part at last, just in time for the last rays to turn the cliffs to flame.


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