Chinese fossil forgery in the last decade highlights some troubling trends in Chinese vertebrate paleontology (1⇓⇓–4). While fossil forgeries unfailingly stoke public fascination in a field capable of producing the infamous Piltdown man hoax, the widespread damages that forgery causes are often not sufficiently recognized. Amid the renaissance of Chinese paleontology evidenced by stunning discoveries of inconceivable riches of fossils (5), paleontologic science is treading a path never experienced elsewhere: Commercialization of fossils and all that goes with a quasi-free market of fossil trade that has simultaneously become the boom and bane of Chinese vertebrate paleontology.
The coupling of several factors enables a spectacular boom in the commercial markets of vertebrate fossils: a long history of “dragon bone” collecting for traditional Chinese medicines, an explosive growth in funding for vertebrate paleontology in China, and a remarkable—if often ill-conceived—building spree of Chinese museums that actively participate in fossil trade. The financial incentive for polishing-up or augmenting an “imperfect” fossil may be irresistible for a farmer of modest means. Eyewitness reports suggest that there are now farmhouses that specialize in faking fossils, with shelves of spare fossil parts at standby for the right components. By their nature, statistics about artificial enhancements of fossils are difficult to come by [some estimate as high as 80% of specimens on display in some Chinese museums (see ref. 3)], but researchers in routine contact with traded fossils can attest to the pervasiveness of fossil faking, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated.
By Chinese law, vertebrate fossils are considered state property and are strictly protected for their scientific value (6). In practice, however, lack of enforcement and corruption enable a thriving fossil market that is highly profitable both domestically and internationally. The scale of illicit quarrying in Chinese fossiliferous sites is unprecedented, resulting in extraordinary discoveries of rare fossils that would not otherwise be found in surface samplings by field paleontologists. While the rest of the paleontologic world still proceeds with its “stone-age” pace of discoveries made by paleontologists scouring surface exposures, Chinese vertebrate paleontology has leapfrogged ahead with the participation of a vast labor force, but in the process risking the future of Chinese paleontology by hollowing out the mountains without regard for collecting common kinds of data and specimens for careful interpretation of ancient environments.