Brian Salter's Blogs:
Just a Pile of Old Bones


What is it about plastic models of dinosaurs that can guarantee to get even the most placid little boys snarling and growling at their parents while the latter look on in total incomprehension as to how anyone can be so turned on by such an ugly toy. It’s another of life’s great mysteries, I believe.

So it is no surprise that anyone wandering off to the west of Beijing’s planetarium – itself not a stone’s throw from the main entrance to the zoo – needs to be on their guard for said models of dinosaurs to come creeping out from behind a bush, much to the delight of the aforementioned kids.

The Paleozoological Museum of China (中国古动物馆) is one of those museums that I guess I have put off for far too long, and finally I pluck up enough courage to mosey over to the place. Outside, there are two lurking dinosaurs, but your favourite intrepid blogger skirts round the larger of the two and up the path to the public entrance.

Founded by, and affiliated to, the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, the Paleozoological Museum of China is a natural science museum that “is exclusively devoted to systematically popularizing knowledge of paleontology, paleoecology, paleoanthropology and the theory of evolution”. It is also the largest specialized museum in Asia covering the topic of the evolution of vertebrate animals.

Health Warning: OK, I guess at this point I have to own up to not being in the slightest bit interested in old fossils; and I feel it is my beholden duty to apologise to you before you read another word on the subject. Venture on at your own risk, and if you fall asleep from sheer boredom before you get to the end, then don’t blame me!

As the first national museum focusing on fossils of ancient creatures, one third of all the identified dinosaur fossils in China are on display in this museum. Try to contain your excitement!

The Museum is divided into two sub-museums: a Museum of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Shuhua Museum of Paleoanthropology. (Bear with me – it gets much more boring than this!) The same building also houses the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences), where research is carried out.

Drawn from the IVPP's collections, the Museum's 1000-plus exhibits (or, if you are reading a different web site: the collection of 970 pieces on display) represent a wide spectrum of vertebrate fossils from jawless 'fishes’ to humans and their artefacts, spanning from the Cambrian era (that’s 530 million years ago to the likes of you and me) to Prehistoric times (a mere 10,000 years ago).

As of 2013, China had apparently unearthed more than 230 species of dinosaur, ranking it the no 1 country in the world for such discoveries. Among them, feathered dinosaurs are unique to China.

Highlights, we are told, include a Lufengosaurus (the first dinosaur in China); Latimeria – a "living fossil" lobe-finned fish and a gift from Africa; Caudipteryx – a dinosaur with real feathers; Tsintaosaurus – a duck-billed dinosaur with a spine on its head; Mamenchisaurus – the world's longest-necked and Asia's largest dinosaur; Confuciousornis – the world's earliest beaked bird; and the best-preserved skeleton of a Stegodon. Oh boy … can it get any better than this?

I read a list of ‘Regulations & Suggestions’:
1) Do not make noise
2) Smoking is strictly forbidden inside the Museum
3) Do not touch the exhibits
4) No Photos or Films.

Unfortunately we are not told which is a regulation and which is a suggestion – and as everyone is happily snapping away on their iPhones and Samsungs, I feel fairly comfortable doing the same thing. I note no one is smoking, so maybe that’s a regulation. Kids are running amok making snarling noises (a suggestion?) and of course what Chinese can possibly hold back from touching the exhibits – (that’s a no brainer!)

The main museum consists of three floors, with the first floor devoted primarily to fishes and amphibians. But right in the centre is a “Dinosaur Yard”. Here I come face to face with a Mamenchisaurus, which has the longest neck of all dinosaurs and is the largest dinosaur in Asia. (Actually I lie. I first come face to face with its bottom. Its head is poking up through into the next floor which is devoted to the likes of reptiles and birds.)

Many of the fossil specimens on display are of extinct animals, examples of which have only been found within the boundaries of modern-day China, such as Sinokannemeyeria. There are also several examples of the evolutionary precursors to birds, including specimens of Confuciusornis and Microraptor, found on field expeditions in Liaoning.

The many explanatory notices tell us that the “emergence of the spine was revolutionary in the process of vertebrate evolution. With the support of the backbone, the animals became stronger and more flexible; adaptability was also enhanced. This change laid a solid foundation for fish, bird and mammalian development during billions of years of evolution. The items exhibited in the Vertebrate Paleontology Hall of Paleozoological Museum are the most precious vertebrate fossils collected by the scientists for over 50 years.

You can palpably feel their suppressed excitement, can’t you?

Sometimes it’s a bit unclear as to what are original bones and what are more likely to be plaster casts filling in the ‘missing bits’, so to speak; but after a while old-bones-fatigue starts to creep in.

The clever museum curators have obviously thought this might be a problem, especially with the younger visitors, and have come up with the brilliant idea of creating five Chinese dinosaur celebrities called Tsing, Liaoliao, River, Lulu and Sisi and inviting the youngsters to see if they can find them in the museum.

Tsing, we are told, is a boy Tsingtaosaurus that is 'frank, unrestrained, bouncing around, kind and humorous, funny and joyful, hoggish and curious, but often losing his way.’ (No really – I’m not making this up!)

Lulu, on the other hand, is a girl Lufengosaurus that is playful and clever, brave and proud, always immersed in her colourful world, artistic and a perfectionist. She also loves cute little animals!

Then there is Liaoliao - a boy microraptor that is agile and active, likes flying but is not very good at it, is timid, but has a sense of justice, friendly, courageous to fight for friends and justice, kind hearted and helpful...

Oh come on! Don’t make me overdose on fun, FGS!

On the second floor is the Ancient Fish and Amphibian Gallery.

The Ancient Fish area includes fossils of different geological times and evolutionary phases, such as Agnatha and primitive Placodermi. (Don’t blame me – I’m only reporting what I saw.)

The fossils displayed in the Amphibian area cover 10-200 million years of history. And prepare once again to be astounded: “Because the Amphibian were living in a humid environment, and their body was full of cartilages, which makes it very easy to rot, the whole fossil of Amphibians is very rare. These fossils are absolutely an international treasure.” Golly!

I stop in front of a fossil – an Ordosochelys Liaoxiensis from Beipiao in Liaoning dating back to the early Cretaceous Period… It reminds me of something served up to me in a restaurant last week.

Close to it is the oldest frog known in China which also comes from Beipiao in Liaoning – the Liaobatrachus Zhaoi – again dating back to the early Cretaceous Period (not so appetising!)

The excitement mounts as I enter the Ancient Reptile and Bird Gallery. Here there are various reptile and bird fossils of different geological ages, including the biggest freshwater turtle fossil found in China, and Confuciusornis – an ancient bird ‘as famous as the archaeopteryx’. (That famous? – That must be why I’ve never heard of it.)

There’s even a Psittacosaurus – which is a beak mouthed dinosaur which was endemic in Asia and comes from Yixian in Liaoning …

Ahhh – another set of bones… this one is a Dicnodont which was a plant eater, “the primary consumer in the eco system playing the same role as ungulates of the African savanah. They were the most abundant land vertebrates from the Middle Permian to the Triassic”.

In the Ancient Mammal Gallery another attempt is made to reach through to the underage visitors with a whole load of what-if and did-you-know questions. Can scientists clone dinosaurs? Unfortunately not, apparently…

In this third floor gallery there are plenty of pictures of snarling ferocious dinosaurs to keep the kids amused.

But at the pets corner, the best they can come up with is a tiny turtle in a grubby tank. No interest there whatsoever…

Instead there is slightly more interest being shown in a picture of “The First Dragon of China” – actually a Lufenosaurus Huenei discovered in the late 1930s in northern Yunnan Province.

Not content with boring us to tears with yet more bones of dinosaurs, we now move on to rodents and learn about the ancestors of today’s rabbits…

Again, no one is the slightest bit interested…

but on the other hand a picture of the largest pet rabbit ever does get a few comments. Eww – gross!

More extinct creatures… fewer growling, snarling kids…

Time for the elephants to get a look in now… or should I call them proboscideans ?

In 1973 a nearly complete elephant skeleton was discovered in Heshui Gansu. It was identified as a new species which they called Stegodon Huanghoensis and nicknamed the Yellow River Elephant. It lived in the early Pleistocene about 2 million years ago, and is the largest stegodont ever known from China, with a shoulder height of 3.81m. Apparently it was around 60 years old when it died.

The museum even displays a phylogenetic tree of proboscideans … as if anyone is the slightest bit interested by now.

Can people really devote their lives to digging up old bones? Apparently so…

I climb down the iron staircase and find there is an adjoining gallery to the main floor which looks at the origins of man.

What great pride we take in being humans, a large board extols. ... How have humans evolved step by step and reached today's status? This is what the Shuhua Hall of Paleonanthopology will show you through its rich display of fossils and artefacts.

There’s information given on Peking Man (an example of Homo erectus), discovered in nearby Zhoukoudian during excavations in 1923-27. The gallery also contains a number of stone tools used by paleolithic people, and examples of other, later fossil skulls from early homonids who once inhabited the area.

Somehow we are meant to think forward to how these old fossil-men evolved into the 56 different nationalities that make up China’s population today.

But it’s hard…

… despite being told that several Chinese fossil humans bear some exotic features typical of the Neanderthal lineage, which suggests the gene flow came originally from the west and can be recognised in the casts on display.

Apparently Chinese fossil humans exhibited a series of common morphological features such as a low flat face, flat nasal saddle, quadrangular orbit, curved contour of the lower border of the cheekbone, and shovel-shaped upper incisors etc.

Nope, your favourite blogger is still having difficulty imagining it…

One wonders if visitors of 60 years ago – dressed up in their finery – had similar difficulties coming to grips with their origins…

Across the hallway is yet another gallery, and at first I think this must have something truly worth looking at, as a steady stream of parents with their offspring troop in there one after another.

But it turns out that the restrooms are located through this entrance, and no one wants to look at the pictures haphazardly mounted on the walls. There’s a guy in a white coat who looks desperate to explain to anyone who will listen to him about their provenance.

He looks at me; I look at him; and he backs off obviously believing (correctly) that he would be wasting his time even starting a conversation with me.

There’s a rather clever paper-cut that I find, depicting what this museum is all about.

But finally, a full 33 minutes after I had entered the main door, I find myself sloping outside once again.

Finally I have discovered the # 1 antidote to insomnia in Beijing. If they could somehow bottle the essence of this museum and sell it through Traditional Chinese Medicine outlets, someone would surely make a fortune.

Take subway Line 4 to Beijing Zoo exit E, and then walk 400 metres westwards.