Fieldwork Journal: We’ve Got Friends in Faraway Places

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Jack Tseng and Camille Grohé, postdoctoral fellows in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, are blogging from the field during an expedition to Inner Mongolia. The post below is from Jack. Read the first post from the expedition here.

A Chinese poet of Mongolian descent once described the longing for her ancestral Inner Mongolian homeland as “the grasslands of her father, and the rivers of her mother.” Many of us on the expeditions share a similar yearning for the fossil-producing regions here in Inner Mongolia that we visit year after year. One team member’s doctoral dissertation research was focused on a single site in Inner Mongolia; another’s entire career has been made on discoveries there during the past three decades. Beyond the scientific importance of the specific sites themselves, part of our fondness for Inner Mongolia comes from the long-lasting friendships we make with the local ranchers and museum staff. 

Jack Tseng Group Photo
A group photo of the team with a local rancher (3rd from left) and a collaborating archaeologist (2nd from right) at the Sunite Left Banner Museum. From Left: Hongjiang Wang, Jack Tseng, Bataar, Wenqing Feng, Lei Feng, and Camille Grohé.
©AMNH/C. Grohé

Among our Inner Mongolian friends, two stand out. One is a rancher, Laowu Bai, known as Bai, the other, a self-taught naturalist named Haifeng Chen, who we call Director Chen. Bai has a sheep herd of more than 100 animals, and his ranch sits on a hill overlooking a spectacular stretch of geologic exposure known to locals as Dahongshan (“big red mountain” in Chinese). Whenever we visit Dahongshan to search for its characteristic early to middle Miocene small mammal fossils, we camp out on Bai’s ranch. Bai lives with his wife and son, who attends school in the nearest town of Sunite Left Banner (accessible by a two-hour motorcycle ride). He always welcomes us with a warm smile and a strong embrace. In 2008, we had the honor of being there during the same week as his son’s first haircut (“Daah' Urgeeh” in Mongolian), a very important ceremony for Mongolian children. Two of our expedition leaders were guests of honor at the ceremony. When we left Bai’s ranch that year, he slaughtered a sheep to host a lunchtime feast for us, and, in fact, wept, as we drove off into the distance. Because of drought, Bai recently moved into Sunite Left Banner and left his brother-in-law behind to look after his sheep. Other nearby ranchers are not so lucky, and must remain with their herd through the tough times. 

Bai’s herd
This photo, taken on an earlier expedition, shows Jack Tseng walking in front of Bai’s herd while wearing a traditional Mongolian robe.
©AMNH/J. Tseng

Our other good friend, Director Chen, enjoys exploring the hills of his home turf, Abaga Banner, looking for fossils. In 2010, he became the director of the Abaga Banner’s Cultural and Natural History Museum, which displays artifacts and specimens from the area. Because of Director Chen’s generosity, the newly built Abaga Museum has become our base camp while we prospect the nearby late Miocene rocks for small and large mammal fossils. Beyond the mandatory feasts he holds each year to welcome us once again, he accompanies us on our fossil-prospecting runs. In fact, he is a key part of our work in Abaga, because he often finds new fossil localities, and then leads us there to investigate them. Enthusiasts like Director Chen are so critical in our work because people like him know and love the Gobi around them. They also live year-round in the area, making any discovery of freshly exposed fossils much more likely than during our short month-long expeditions.

Two people collecting specimens in a small plastic bag on a dirt hillside while a third person stands and watches nearby.
Director Chen (left) of the Abaga Museum looks on as Hongjiang Wang and Camille Grohé collect Miocene fossils from the side of a hill.
©AMNH/J. Tseng

Unfortunately, Gobi fossils have become attractive to smugglers, and there has recently been a rise in black-market trade in these scientifically valuable finds. During one of our own expeditions, we left a large plaster-covered block containing late Miocene mammal fossils at the site of discovery for a later time, because it was too large to move with our available equipment. When we returned several months later to retrieve the block, we found that it had been hacked into pieces, with large portions missing. Local police never solved the case, but they suggested that it could be related to the known illegal trade of fossils and cultural artifacts in the area.

Group of nine people pulling ropes attached to a large rock on a wood plank frame through scrubby rocky terrain.
Large blocks of plaster-encased rock containing Miocene mammal fossils being extracted from Baogeda Ula Formation in Abaga Banner. One block similar to the one shown in this photo was destroyed by local vandals in 2009.
©G. Takeuchi, Page Museum of Rancho La Brea Discoveries

This expedition is funded by the American Museum of Natural History and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Additional support for this work was provided by the Franco-American Fulbright Scholar program, the AMNH Frick Fund (Paleontology), and the U.S. National Science Foundation. 

Read the first post in the series here.