Unearthing the Dragon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2005, 12:00am

Unearthing the Dragon

by Mark Norell

Pi Press $234

Pitched as a 'real-life, offbeat Indiana Jones', Mark Norell - the head of palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History - proves to be quite a maverick. Norell takes the reader on a rollicking pre-millennial fossil hunt through the 'post-apocalyptic landscapes' of Liaoning.

With a touch of the Hunter S. Thompson about him, one moment he's describing how 'adrenalin metabolites' fill his veins in the wake of 'the hundred-or-so near-death experiences' dished out by a mad taxi driver. The next, he's 'digging into the inner recesses of a minibar' - then exposing how he and his photographer Mick Ellison clash affectionately with scientist Luis Chiappe. 'Looking right into Mick's eyes, Luis proclaimed, 'I am not like you. I am a sensitive, cultured man. Look at my eyes, look! Look at these tears! I am not afraid to cry, but I can also be very hard!''

Norell laughs so hard at this display of yin and yang that beer comes out of his nose. Ellison hyperventilates.

The reader may react similarly to Norell's revelations about how the Chinese they meet view westerners. The assumption is that the west wants glitz and so the locals decorate dinosaur fossils with rhinestones, feathers and paint.

Norell is only there for the original feathers. The point of his chronicle is to show that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs.

His argument has its roots in the early 1990s, when bird-like dinosaur fossils began to emerge, 'one enticing specimen after another'. Norell meets the man in charge of a hoard of fuzzy Sihetun fossils: Beijing geologist Ji Qiang.

Norell looks through a microscope attached to a makeshift stand. He fears a wrong move will send the apparatus crashing down on his quarry encased in satin and velvet boxes. But, under the flickering green light, he makes out feathers 'structurally identical to those of modern birds'.

He realises he's looking at 'something that enabled warm-blooded creatures to dart across the sky and migrate over oceans and continents'. Dinosaurs were more like 'strutting peacocks' than big lizards, he writes.

His account lays down the gauntlet to the scientific opposition in the shape of Birds Are Not Dinosaurs (Band). He dismisses Band as 'a cottage industry of nay-saying and incredulity' and accuses its members of failing to apply modern research methods. His own research gains credibility from the recent discovery of the remains of eggs inside a dinosaur in Jiangxi.

While Norell fights fatigue, engaging in drinking contests and ogling 'hotties', you may forget what Unearthing the Dragons is about. Bloke-lit and science make strange bedfellows. Nonetheless, his gutsy, reality-drenched style can be persuasive. Just look at how he fights the Band allegation that he wilfully sees feathers where none exists.

He recounts how, during one car journey in a battered Japanese SUV, his friend at the wheel, Bao, asks what 'okie-dokey' means. Norell's point is that the slang is simply new and strange, rather than something Bao wanted to hear. Likewise, Norell says, it's 'preposterous' to suggest that he's infatuated by the idea of feathers and determined to see so-called dinofuzz at all costs.

His book's illustrations of distinctly bird-like dinosaur fossils support his case. Thanks in part to his crusade, the era of seeing dinosaurs purely as sleek, scaly creatures may be over.