Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is true of all science, but especially in palaeontology, where only a handful of exceptional fossils can give a disproportionate amount of weight to a hypothesis. As a consequence, palaeontologists are rightly highly suspicious of exceptional fossils, and thus new finds are, at first, treated with derision and pathological suspicion, until, after much scrutiny, they are found to make the grade.

Never was this more the case than with Archeoraptor. Here was a fossil that had a lot to prove and a long way to fall. But, despite the whinings of Kent Hovind and the like, from the very start, very few people were fooled by Archeoraptor, and the whole debacle barely registered within the scientific community.

But, regardless of this, Archeoraptor should never have been allowed to happen, and should never happen again.

Archaeoraptor - A very sorry affair.

Archaeoraptor was suspicious right from the start. As I mentioned in the case of Irritator, faked fossils like these are born out of the strict laws on collecting and trading fossils, and Archaeoraptor is no exception. I'll let the cat out of the bag straight away, and tell you that Archaeoraptor is a composite of at least three, perhaps even five, separate specimens. The original fossils were found by a farmer, who tried to get more money by trimming and cementing several fossils into one whole specimen. The fossil was then illegally exported to the USA where it was eventually bought for the Dinosaur Museum by it's owner, an enthusiatic amateur called Stephen Czerkas, for $80,000.

After this, Phil Currie and National Geographic were contacted about the find, and they agreed to study the fossil along with Chinese expert Xu Xing, and get it published in Nature, to be followed by a press conference and a feature issue of National Geographic.

However, during his initial analysis, Currie had noticed that the tail did not seem to connect with the body, and that parts of the fossil belonged to the counterslab. He consequently took the fossil to be CT scanned by Tim Rowe, who unfortunately showed that the legs and the tail clearly didn't match the rest of the fossil at, and that the whole fossil could indeed be a fraud.

Look carefully at the the fabric of the rock in the CT scan, and you can see that the broken blocks don't seem to match up. From Nature.

It should have stopped, right there. But, much to Czerkas' later regret, it didn't. Czerkas instead pressurized Rowe and Currie to keep their reservations quiet. Currie then got the fossil looked at by his preparator, Kevin Aulenback, who also noted that it seemed to be a composite of three to five different specimens. And, much to Currie's later regret, he never informed National Geographic of this. So, incredibly, the whole affair rumbles on.

The group then prepared a paper for Nature, which was flatly rejected as the group's time constraints meant that there wouldn't be enough time for peer review. Then, the paper was then resubmitted to Science, who also rejected it. This time, their reviewers spotted that on top of the fossil having been illegally imported, it had clearly been severely doctored to enhance its value.

I'll reiterate that: Archaeoraptor was never published in a peer-reviewed paper. Therefore, as far as science is concerned, it doesn't exist, and never did exist.

Again, it should have stopped there. Two journals have rejected your find, and many people have expressed severe doubts over the validity of your fossil. But - and, God knows what went through their mind - they decided not to inform National Geographic of the paper rejections. On October 15, 1999 National Geographic unveiled the fossil, and decided to go ahead and publish the Archaeoraptor story in the November issue on the assumption that it would eventually be published in a peer reviewed paper.

Around this time, Xu Xing was informed by Currie of his worries about the fossil. Xu saw the fossil for the first time and noticed an uncanny resemblance between the tail of Archaeoraptor and that of something he was studying. After contacting many dealers associated with the fossil locality, he eventually sourced the fossil of a small dromaeosaur which was identical to the tail section of Archaeoraptor in every way; even possessing a yellow oxide stain in the same place. He had found the counterpart.

Well, if all the evidence so far hadn't been enough, this really was the straw that broke the camel's back. On December 20th 1999, barely 2 months after its unveiling, Xu emailed all involved announcing that the fossil was demonstrably a fake. National Geographic announced that they were investigating and, in October 2000, less than a year after the original article and despite the new millennium hububb, Archaeoraptor was dethroned.

All those involved in the Archaeoraptor debacle understandably have expressed much regret over the whole episode. Stephen Czerkas admitted that he made "an idiot, bone-stupid mistake". "This embarrassment will follow me the rest of my life". National Geographic really got their hands burnt, and are likely to be a lot more careful about assuring peer review in future.

Whilst writing this article, I must say that it is very disheartening when you search in google for sources and many of the results - in fact, most of the results - are from creationist sites. They denounce Archaeoraptor as another example of evolutionists blundering, basing all of our assumptions on dodgy fossils that are concocted by devious dealers, acting as saboteurs.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as I'm sure the complete story above demonstrates. For a start, people fake things for money. Pure and simple. And, what's more is that they just try and construct as best they can from fossils that they find around them; they're not in any way trying to be devious, all they want is for their fossil to not be spotted as a fake. Archaeoraptor was composed of fragments of several animals that were mistakenly assumed to be similar from the same animal. In fact, some of the fragments were from a soon to be described new dinosaur.

I've said it above and I'll say it again: Archaeoraptor never entered the realm of science; it fell at the first hurdle. It certainly never entered textbooks, despite many claims. Remember, it was published in a everyman magazine in an article by an art editor. Doubts were expressed right from the start, and the whole thing should have been stopped before it got to publication. Had National Geographic known of the reservations expressed by all those that had seen it, I'm sure they would have held back.

Regardless of this, the problems were exposed by scientists, and are part of the every day process of science. Archaeoraptor has been
particularly important in the way it has spurred on the application of analytical techniques for the purpose of spotting fakes. But, still, lets hope it never happens again.


Rowe, Timothy, Richard A. Ketcham, Cambria Denison, Matthew Colbert, Xing Xu, and Philip J. Currie. 2001. “Forensic palaeontology: The Archaeoraptor forgery.” Nature 410 (6828) (March 29): 539-540. doi:10.1038/35069145.