MSU Paleontologist Risks Political
Unrest to Dig in China
by Annette Trinity-Stevens
While Museum of the Rockies paleontologists were busy discovering a record five T. rex skeletons
in eastern Montana last summer, another crew with Montana connections was searching for bones in a
remote corner of China, where political unrest nearly canceled the trip.
"We'd already spent a lot of money just to get to Beijing and didn't like the idea of going home,"
Montana State University research associate Frankie Jackson said of her August trip to Xinjiang
Tucked in the northwest corner of China, Xinjiang has a history of violence. The native Uygurs,
who are Muslims, want a separate state and have carried out bombings, riots and assassinations
in the region. Chinese authorities have cracked down and in July executed three Uygurs accused
of making bombs.
"The Beijing museum was worried about kidnapping," Jackson said during a recent slide show on the
MSU campus. "They thought we would be an easy target for the Uygurs if they wanted to make an
international statement about their fight for autonomy."
The museum suggested they cancel the rest of the trip or travel with armed guards. One paleontologist
who grew up in the region thought it was safe to go without guards but advised the group to keep
a low profile. That meant not wearing dinosaur T-shirts and staying out of local karaoke bars,
Led by Luis Chiappe of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the seven-member crew
flew from Beijing to Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital. There they rented a vehicle and hired a driver
who was lost all the time. It took 10 hours to reach the village of Urho, population roughly 1,000,
in what Jackson described as the most dangerous part of the trip.
"The roads are so poor and the people drive like maniacs," she explained. "I thought the Argentines
were bad [drivers], but they don't even compare to this region."
From Urho, the group hiked for miles through what's called the Junggar Basin during their three-week
stay. Daytime temperatures averaged around 100 degrees.
They were looking for bones from the early Cretaceous period--about 75 million years ago. They
found flying reptiles called Pterasaurs, small theropod dinosaurs, part of a stegosaur, and
numerous turtle skeletons. The bones will be shipped to the U.S. for study but will return to China.
In the evenings they stayed at a hotel in Urho. Anonymity for the crew--two Americans, four
Argentines and one Italian--was impossible.
"We might as well have been from Mars," Jackson said. "Everywhere we went we had to get used to
being stared at, a lot. People would just stand and stare--in the restaurants, at the market. We
were the only foreigners the town had ever seen."
While eating shish-kebabs one night, the paleontologists were joined by a middle-aged man whose
daughter spoke English. The man introduced Jackson's group to his entire family and invited them
to a street dance. Nearly everyone in town wanted to dance with the foreigners and formed a tight
knot around them as hard-rock music blared from loudspeakers.
"We were hardly keeping the low profile we were instructed to," Jackson commented.
The paleontologists returned to the U.S. on Sept. 3, and a week later a truck carrying explosives
blew up in the western suburbs of the Xinjiang capital and killed 60 people.
"It looks like the danger might have been greater than we appreciated at the time," Jackson said.
Nevertheless, Jackson hopes to return to China next year. She has dug for dinosaurs in Patagonia,
also with the Los Angeles museum. In 1998 she co-authored a paper that described dinosaur eggs and
rare embryos found at the now-famous site.
"Frankie is indisputably one of the world's experts on dinosaur eggs," MSU earth sciences
department head Jim Schmitt said.
"There are only three of us," Jackson joked.
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