HISTORY

STONE AGE: THE DUNE DWELLERS

The first humans to collect fossils at the Flaming Cliffs were an ancient people known today only as the “Dune Dwellers”. In the 1920s, stone tools, ostrich egg jewelry, burned animal bones and fragments of dinosaur eggs from the Flaming Cliffs were discovered together in the same rock layer at nearby dunes. The layer dates to roughly 20,000 years ago. We have no record of what these people thought of the fossils they found, or how they interpreted them, but it’s safe to say that the human sense of wonder at these mysterious ancient animals goes back a long, long time. On a geologic time scale, the dinosaurs were just as old then as they are now.

900 B.C. to 100 B.C.: SCYTHIANS

While there is no direct evidence of a Scythian presence at the Flaming Cliffs, it is likely that these widespread traders and nomads were the ones responsible for first bringing knowledge of the Mongolian dinosaur Protoceratops to Europe. It is known that they travelled to both Mongolia and ancient Greece. When they described Protoceratops as a four-legged animal with a bird-like beak and a long tail to the ancient Greeks, it began the legend of the griffin. A firm connection between the griffin and Protoceratops was made in the late 1990s by researcher Adrienne Mayor.

1920s to 1930s: ROY CHAPMAN ANDREWS AND THE AMNH

The era of modern science at the Flaming Cliffs began in 1922 with the discovery of the first Protoceratops skull by James Shackelford, a cinematographer in the expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews. Andrews was a zoologist at the American Museum of Natural History who led several expeditions to the Gobi in the 1920s and 30s. His book, The New Conquest of Central Asia, documents these expeditions. Here is an excerpt of the book’s first mention of the Flaming Cliffs:

This is one of the most picturesque spots that I have ever seen. From our tents, we looked down into a vast pink basin, studded with giant buttes like strange beasts, carved from sandstone. One of them we named the “dinosaur,” for it resembles a huge Brontosaurus sitting on its haunches. There appear to be medieval castles with spires and turrets, brick-red in the evening light, colossal gateways, walls and ramparts. Caverns run deep into the rock and a labyrinth of ravines and gorges studded with fossil bones make a paradise for the palaeontologist. One great sculptured wall we named the “Flaming Cliffs,” for when seen in early morning or late afternoon sunlight it seemed to be a mass of glowing fire.

1930s to 1950s: SOVIET MONGOLIA

During the height of the Soviet Union, most of the paleontological and geological expeditions into the Gobi were for mineralogical resources, although some important paleontological discoveries were made in the Nemegt Basin, a half day’s drive from the Flaming Cliffs. The first Tarbosaurus, now one of Mongolia’s most famous dinosaurs, was discovered on one of these Soviet expeditions.

1963-1971: ZOFIA KIELAN-JAWOROWSKA AND THE SOVIET EXPEDITIONS

The 1960s brought several expeditions led by Polish paleontologist Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska. Her book, Hunting for Dinosaurs, documents the expeditions and their findings. It was on the 1971 expedition that her team discovered the famous “fighting dinosaurs” fossil, the remains of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops locked in mortal combat even as they were buried by a collapsing sand dune. This discovery was made about ten miles west of the Flaming Cliffs, at Tugrugiin Shiree.

1990s: MICHAEL J. NOVACEK AND THE JOINT EXPEDITIONS OF THE AMNH AND THE MONGOLIAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCES

With the end of the Soviet Union, Mongolia opened its borders once again to western scientists, and American Museum of Natural History was eager to reinvigorate the paleontological tradition at the Flaming Cliffs which had been started by Roy Chapman Andrews seven decades prior. This was also the beginning of a new interest in paleontology among Mongolians, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences joined forces with the AMNH to send the first post-Soviet expedition back out to the Flaming Cliffs. A series of expeditions in the 1990s have been well documented by Michael J Novacek in several books, most notably Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs. The Mongolian paleontologist who studied the Flaming Cliffs extensively during this period was Dashzeveg Demberel.

The 90s was also a time of increased tourism throughout the former Soviet countries, and the Flaming Cliffs got a taste of this as well, with new tours sprouting up to show curious travellers the Cretaceous up close.

2000s-TODAY: BOLOR MINJIN AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF MONGOLIAN DINOSAURS

Until recently, the Mongolian people who live near the Flaming Cliffs have been treated as a footnote to the discoveries. This began to change in the past few years thanks to the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, founded by Mongolian paleontologist Bolor Minjin. She realized that the fossils would never be safe from poachers without help from the local community, and she also saw that the people who lived here had much to gain from the presence of the quarry, both economically and from the educational value of having a window into the Cretaceous right in their back yard.

Since there is no museum for many hundreds of miles, Bolor Minjin brought one out here in 2015. The moveable museum, filled with dinosaur fossil replicas and exhibits, was acquired from the same American Museum of Natural History that sent Roy Chapman Andrews here nearly a century ago. For the first time, children at the Flaming Cliffs got to enjoy and learn about the same dinosaurs that Andrews and his team excavated generations ago.

This website is the latest effort of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs to keep the momentum of the moveable museum going and to educate not just the world, but the local Mongolian people on the awe-inspiring fossil discoveries of this unique and special place.