Dinosaurs & Daredevils at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs

Dinosaurs & Daredevils at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs

It was 1922 and the team of paleontologists had penetrated further into Mongolia’s stark Gobi Desert than any other western scientists. Several big black American cars drove over the gritty hard-packed sand through the scrub, followed by a straggling camel caravan of supplies.

Dinosaur CountryThe expedition leader, Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History, called a halt near an upraised escarpment that was, in his words, “…almost paved with white fossil bones… In the late afternoon sun the brilliant red sandstone seemed to shoot out tongues of fire and so we named the spot the ‘Flaming Cliffs.’”

In this celebrated spot, they were to make groundbreaking discoveries – the first nest of dinosaur eggs ever found, and the fossil of the first mammal proven to have lived during the era of the dinosaurs, some 95 million years ago.

The wide open spaces of Mongolia's Flaming Cliffs are home to dinosaur bones and fossils <br>Photo credit: Andrew Barron

The wide open spaces around Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are repositories of dinosaur bones and fossils
Photo credit: Andrew Barron

Daredevil CountryAndrews, the swashbuckling leader of this and four other Central Asiatic Expeditions, began at the American Museum of Natural History by sweeping the floors of the taxidermy department, but it wasn’t long before he was leading fossil-hunting expeditions. He set himself apart from more mundane scientists in the popular imagination with his crowd-pleasing accounts of his adventures.

Commonly believed to be the inspiration for the film character Indiana Jones, Andrews wrote about his adventures in the best-selling books Ends of the Earth and Under a Lucky Star. In his first 15 years of fieldwork he recalled at least ten times when his life was in danger, from typhoons, bandits, a huge python and one “fanatical lama.” In a typical episode at a Mongolia dig site, the team awoke from sleep to find that poisonous snakes had slithered out of the cold Gobi night and into their warm sleeping bags.

Roy Chapman Andrews found these dinosaur eggs at the Flaming Cliffs<br>Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History

Roy Chapman Andrews admires the dinosaur eggs he discovered at the Flaming Cliffs
Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History

Ancient Treasure ChestThe Flaming Cliffs, red sandstone formations laid down perhaps 75 million years ago, turned out to be a treasure trove for Andrews and his team, with numerous fossils from the Cretaceous period preserved in the hot, arid climate.

A later Polish-Mongolian expedition to the region came across the famous “Fighting Dinosaurs,” the skeletons of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops apparently struggling with each other. And in 1990, the American Museum of Natural History was invited back into the no-longer-communist country; their efforts were rewarded with a particularly rich field of Cretaceous skulls, also in the same general area. Scientists are still exploring this productive field.

For the traveler and layperson, the sight of the magnificent and momentous Flaming Cliffs glowing in the rays of sunset is reward enough. That and the sight of the cleaned and preserved fossils resting in state in the country’s museums.

Travel to Mongolia with MIRYou can explore Mongolia’s ancient sites, treasures and “swashbuckling stories” such as those of the Flaming Cliffs on some of MIR’s scheduled tours. You can also book a custom private journey.

(Top photo credit: Andrew Barron)

PUBLISHED: August 20, 2014

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