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“Eric Prokopi, 39, was sentenced by US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein for smuggling a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus skeleton from Mongolia into the United States by making false statements to US officials, including that the then-unassembled bones were merely reptile fossils from Great Britain.

Once assembled, the skeleton was sold by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions for more than $1 million before it was seized by the U.S. government and returned to Mongolia.”


Robert Plot’s 1677 work The Natural History of Oxford-shire featured a drawing of the bone of a giant dug up by Plot himself. The image is now recognised as one of the earliest known western illustrations of a dinosaur bone.

In 1811, at the age of twelve, Mary Anning and her brother Joseph dug up a four foot skull on the Blue Lias cliffs in Lyme Regis in Dorset. A few months later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. Henry Hoste Henley of Sandringham, Norfolk, who was lord of the manor of Colway, near Lyme Regis, paid the family twenty-three pounds for it. Hoste then sold the skeleton to William Bullock, a well-known collector, who displayed it in London. Mary Anning’s family were fossil hunters who would sell the curiosities they found to tourists visiting the area. Once considered little more than a mud-lark, today Mary is recognised as one of the most important figures in 19th century palaeontology.

It was not until 1824 that William Bucklandpresident of the Geological Society of London – wrote the first full account of a dinosaur detailing the discovery of fossilised giant reptile bones from a creature which he christened Megalosaurus (“great lizard”).

The taxon Dinosauria (from which we get the word dinosaur) was formally named in 1842 by paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, who used it to refer to the “distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles” whose fossilised remains were by now being being discovered and catalogued around the world.

By the the latter half of the 19th century fossils were being discovered and catalogued with such ferocity that in America two palaeontologists – Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Othniel Charles Marsh of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale – became bitter rivals. These former colleagues became engaged in what came to be known as the Bone Wars – between 1877 and 1892, both paleontologists used their wealth and influence to finance their own expeditions and to procure services and dinosaur bones from fossil hunters. By the end of the Bone Wars, both men had exhausted their funds in the pursuit of paleontological supremacy.

Long, long before Plot unearthed his giant’s bone -circa 300 BC – the Chinese book Shennong Bencao Jing (“Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica“) documented the medicnal use of “dragon bones” (“longgu”) and “dragon teeth” (“longchi”):

Dragon bone is sweet and balanced. It mainly treats heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual miasma, and old ghosts; it also treats cough and counterflow of qi, diarrhea and dysentery with pus and blood, vaginal discharge, hardness and binding in the abdomen, and fright epilepsy in children. Dragon teeth mainly treats epilepsy, madness, manic running about, binding qi below the heart, inability to catch one’s breath, and various kinds of spasms. It kills spiritual disrupters. Protracted taking may make the body light, enable one to communicate with the spirit light, and lengthen one’s life span.”

Dragon bone is still used in Chinese medicine today. In 2002 samples of dragon bone and dragon tooth obtained from the market place were analysed by several Chinese institutes. The results showed that they contained the bones of stegodons (long-legged saber-toothed elephants), wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, and hipparions (three-toed horses) among other long extinct species. [1]

In 2006 Li Chui, a farmer in Shaping Village in Ruyang County, central China’s Henan Province, unearthed a large quantity of dragon bones – enough, he thought, to make him quite a bit of money at the then going rate of 1.4 yuan per kg. The dealer who Li Chui spoke to about selling the bones reported the find to the Beijing-based Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Scientists from the institute spent the next two years on the site. They concluded that the bones belonged to Asia’s tallest and heaviest dinosaur that may have lived as long ago as one hundred million years. They named it the Yellow River Dinosaur.[2]

Few (if any) would argue that it is wrong to want to preserve the remains of these amazing creatures which are, after all, finite – there are only so many bones embedded in ancient rock and buried beneath the earth. Some, however, say that with so many people wanting to own fossils there’s a danger that we could all lose out. In a recent article on io9.com, scientist and columnist Mika McKinnon wrote “A privately-owned fossil is like privately-owned art, a collectable lost from public view for the pleasure of a special few. While I understand that is exactly the appeal of being rich and privileged, it seems deeply unfair to hide something created by our planet away from public access […] When a beautiful fossil that has high scientific value is purchased by a collector for their personal enjoyment, that scientific utility is lost to the entire planet.” [3]

We’ve come an amazingly long way in a short few hundred years in our understanding of dinosaurs via their remains. It’s tragic enough that many fossils have already been ground down or boiled away in the name of medicine, it would be awful to think that one day the most magnificent which survive might only be viewed by a wealthy elite. Becoming as rare and legendary to the average person as dragon’s bones.

[1] http://www.itmonline.org/arts/dragonbone.htm

[2] http://www.bjreview.com.cn/science/txt/2008-04/04/content_108818.htm

[3] http://io9.com/fossil-poaching-and-the-black-market-in-dinosaur-bones-1577785816