The Dinosaur "Bone Wars"

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

An unknown paleontologist, 1860 Getty

1877 was a banner year for American dinosaurs: three major finds in the West turned the region into a “paleontologist’s El Dorado.”

How much is that dinosaur in the window? It’s a vexing question, particularly for paleontologists. Science and commerce are not necessarily compatible, and the dinosaur fossil market abounds with bootlegged imports and fakes. In the U.S., it’s finders-keepers if your dino discovery is on private land. “Sue,” the T. rex, sold for $8.3 million in 1997.

Here’s where the historian Lukas Rieppel comes in. He’s been writing about the first Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, when rare dinosaur bones were valued the same way as other scarce resources, like gold, silver, and coal.

Rieppel explores the sale of a mother lode of dinosaur bones discovered at Como Bluff in Wyoming, in 1877. That was a miracle year for American dinosaurs: three major finds in the West turned the region into a “paleontologist’s El Dorado, making the United States the international center of dinosaur research, publication, and display.”

It also fueled “bone wars” between the country’s most famous paleontologists. The personalities of Othniel Charles Marsh, of the Peabody Museum at Yale, and Edward Drinker Cope, of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, have obscured the “transactional relationships that dominated 19th-century natural history.” Marsh and Cope were independently wealthy and spent fortunes buying dinosaurs.

“The market for fossils was notoriously prone to deception and outright fraud,” writes Rieppel. Out in the “Wild West,” there was no “established legal or regulatory framework, contracts were generally hard to enforce and disputes often had to be settled through informal arbitration procedures.” The traditional face-to-face deal was often out of the question, and “trust did not scale up nearly as well,” even though railroad and telegraph lines bridged great distances. Rieppel writes:

[h]aggling over dinosaurs relied on a a set of transactional practices established in America’s bourgeoning mineral industry for clues on how to behave. Notably, these included a set of negotiation tactics designed to exploit rather than overcome the deficit of trust…

The first dinosaur fossils discovered in the U.S. were on the East Coast. These were donated to scientific institutions by their discoverers. But the three western bone quarries discovered in 1877 were offered for sale. This was a “deep shift in the economic status of American dinosaurs, marking their transition from a gift into an object of economic exchange.”

White settlers on the frontier were already familiar with a booming (and busting) extractive economy. Fossil hunting and mining became intimately linked. The mineral industry, however, “was a notoriously speculative bubble full of prospectors lured by the promise of striking it rich.” Few did. But there were always suckers to gull into the promise of a deep mine… of perhaps nothing at all.