Fossil fakes and their recognition

Ever since fossils first attracted the attention of mankind, they have been traded and, with the emergence of this commerce, so fossil fakes have appeared. The number of such fakes and their geographical origin has increased with time. On the one hand, this parallels the large demand for fossils; on the other, it reflects the outlawing of fossil sales in some countries, combined with the economic needs of many families, who use fossils as their main source of income. This trend will continue, as the supply of genuine fossils diminishes due to trading restrictions. In particular, it will continue as borders, which were once freely open to nomadic movements become heavily policed, along with a decrease in open collecting sites.

History of fossil fakes

Fossils have been used for more than 400,000 years, some as tools and others as fertility symbols. For example, fossil echinoids were found in the early Neolithic site of Ain Ghazal in Jordan and at a Neolithic site in County Kerry in SW Ireland, where they were used as funeral adornments for ceremonial purposes. In addition, bracelets made of fossil shells were excavated at a Neolithic site in Vinca-Belo Brdo in Serbia.

It is apparent from these examples that fossils were used by early Europeans to produce items of social value that could be traded. Therefore, it is not surprising that fossils have been faked for a long period of time. One of the most striking fossil frauds, rivalling in fame the ‘Piltdown Man’ fraud from Sussex in England, happened at the beginning of eighteenth century and was carried out by colleagues of Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667–1740) (Taylor 2004). Beringer, who was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Würzburg, was very interested in the study of “formed stones,” as a testament to the Biblical Creation. However, his personal arrogance provoked two of his colleagues to organise a massive fraud involving the manufacture and sale to the hapless Beringer of more than a thousand fraudulent fossils. These he depicted in twenty-one engraved plates in his book Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1826) (Plate 1, Fig. 1A). When Beringer discovered the deception, he initiated a court action against the perpetrators. He never published again on fossils, though a modern German palaeontological journal – Beringeria – honours his name.

A well-known fossil fake used by Creationists to argue against evolution comprised supposed fossilised human footprints. These were found among Cretaceous dinosaur trackways in the 1920s and 1930s on the banks of the Paluxy River at Glen Rose (Texas, USA) by George Adams, a Creationist with a reputation for making fraudulent fossils (Fig. 1b). In 1970, Wayland Adams, a resident of Glen Rose, explained to the media that his uncle, George Adams, had carved the fake human footprints to demonstrate a technique for carving slabs with a hammer and chisel, and had applied muriatic acid and manure to age the specimens artificially.

Another fake with importance for evolution is Archaeoraptor, a supposed new genus found in China, details of which were published in National Geographic Magazine in 1999. This fossil fake seemingly represented additional proof of the link between birds and dinosaurs. The discovery of Archaeoraptor was a major item of world news. The journal announced the fossil to be “the lost link” between birds and theropod dinosaurs. However, even before publication, there had been severe doubts about the authenticity of the fossil. Archaeoraptor became a scandal when it was demonstrated to be a composite made from true fossils belonging to three different species. Zhou et al. (2002) confirmed that the major part of the fake, the body, really belonged to a primitive fossil bird, Yanornis, but the tail was from the dromaeosaur, Microraptor, which had been described by Simon (2000). The limbs belonged to an animal still undetermined (Fig 1c). The scandal of Archaeoraptor drew attention to the illegal traffic of fossils in China. However, although this was a fake, there are many true examples of feathered dinosaurs that show the close evolutionary relationships between birds and theropods.

In general, we can distinguish two different kinds of deception – ‘fossils’ that have been completely or partially manufactured and true fossils for which a false provenance has been claimed. An example of the latter is provided by the work of Professor Vishwa Jit Gupta of Panjab University at Chandigarh in India (Talent 1989). Gupta bought fossils from various sites around the world, claiming that he had found all of them himself in northern India. This misled several sincere scientists with whom he collaborated to make incorrect conclusions about the palaeogeographical distributions of numerous taxa.

Fig. 1. Well-known fossil fakes: a. Faked fossil human footprint; b. Examples of Beringer’s fake fossils; and c. Archaeoraptor, made of fossils belonging to different species, including at least one bird and a dromaeosaur.

Increasing fossil commerce

Countries where fossil fakes are common include Peru, Colombia, Russia, USA, Germany, France, and (especially) Morocco and China. The biggest markets for these fakes are in the USA, Morocco and China. The US market is also the leader in the trade of fakes and the Internet provides a ready source for them. Sale and auction websites on the Internet are an ideal way for selling fake fossils. Other outlets for selling fake fossils are the numerous mineral and fossil fairs organised around the world, and the more important the fair, the larger the number of fakes.

Fairs in Germany have the best controls to avoid the fraudulent sale of fakes as genuine fossils. Thanks to authenticity controls, fake fossils can only be sold as copies in Germany and not as real fossils, as often happens in Morocco. An important fact to emphasise is that, since China became open to commerce, fakes have increased by more than 500% as a result of the massive demand for Chinese fossils. The variety and magnitude of Chinese fake fossils is endless. They include every kind of forgery, from fakes made of pieces of different specimens (dinosaurs, turtles and crocodiles), to copies made completely of plaster (turtles, crocodiles and sabre-toothed cat skulls). This market is fuelled by the shortage of complete, genuine fossils, with those originals that do exist commanding high prices.

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