UNDER chalky layers of earth laid down in ages past are buried the remains of creatures, from dinosaurs to woolly mammoths, that once roamed the earth. Those bones, and the high prices they fetch on the free market, are the focus of a ferocious dispute the likes of which is rarely seen in science.
During a federal fossil conference here in Rapid City, S.D., debate rose to the point that some compared it to the so-called Western bone wars of a century ago, when paleontologists smashed dinosaur remains so they would be of no use to their rivals. This debate, though, is over the worth of those remains.
A burgeoning demand for crowd-pleasing fossils, particularly in Europe and the Orient, where museums have a hard time finding them locally, is driving the price of ancient remains beyond the reach of researchers, some scholars say. That makes the bones less available for science and for public display, they argue.
"Fossils are being mined and sold much the same way as many mineral resources," says Montana State University paleontologist Pat Leiggi, who is campaigning for a federal bill, introduced in July by Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, to outlaw any public-land digging for vertebrate fossils. Without stronger laws, Mr. Leiggi says, "we will all end up paying market prices for knowledge of past life."
A Japanese firm offered Montana State's Museum of the Rockies $4 million for a skeleton of the fierce Tyrannosaurus Rex that its teams dug up in 1990, he recalls.
But growing ranks of commercial fossil dealers, backed by a separate faction of academics, contend they are bringing the free market to a scientific arena and doing a better job than many tax-funded schools and museums. They wave a 1987 National Academy of Sciences report that said science would benefit most from "unimpeded access" to fossils, even on federal land. Bone battle comes to boil
"We're putting people to work and making fossils available when museums have basements so full of pieces it would take them 500 years to study them all," says Barry James, paleontologist owner of Prehistoric Journeys, a Santa Barbara, Calif., fossil dealer.
Bone merchants contend that scholars who would restrict digging want to keep fossils only for themselves. But the academics wonder if it isn't the dealers themselves who are elitist, offering bones only to those who can afford them - though most reputable dealers do open their inventories for study.
Although the bone battle has been simmering for years, a spate of recent events has brought it to a boil. First, a private dinosaur hunter found the most complete skeleton ever discovered of a meat-eating allosaurus in Wyoming, after accidentally straying onto public land without a permit. It was a spectacular find, but H. J. (Kirby) Siber got more criticism than praise from scientists, who said that he might have sold it for upwards of $500,000.
"Everyone should have been pleased that this came to light," says Mr. Siber, who has opened his own popular dinosaur museum and employs his own team of scientists in Switzerland. "Instead, they used it to throw dirt on me."
Then, this spring, federal authorities seized the biggest Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found, saying the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, the South Dakota fossil-hunting company that found it, had broken laws by digging it up on Indian reservation land held in trust by the government. No charges have been filed. Company president Peter Larson argues that everything was legal and is suing to get back the dinosaur, known as Sue.
Destined to become the centerpiece of a nonprofit museum in South Dakota's Black Hills, Sue's skull was about to be CAT-scanned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part of a pioneering study of dinosaur anatomy. Now, the beast's skeleton is being held in a steel storage bin.
Mr. Larson and his supporters picketed the Rapid City conference, which they thought was intended to bash them. They held their own counter-conference, where Larson boasted of getting to dig in Russia and China.
"What's happening when we can't even collect in our own country?" he asked. Even critics acknowledge that Larson and some of his colleagues are as well-qualified as many scientists working in museums.
"Nobody would probably argue that many of the reputable commercial dealers know what they are doing," says Smithsonian Institution paleontologist Robert Emry. Rather, it's the trend they set that raises concern. When Dr. Emry collected fossils 35 years ago, private landowners rarely minded, he says, but now, "every time I pick something up, they'll say, `What is that worth?' " Excavation is costly
Companies like Larson's sell something like a fairly common duck-billed dinosaur for $350,000 and dinosaur teeth for closer to $20, depending on quality. Much of the price is a function of the thousands of hours it takes to excavate and prepare such specimens, but it also illustrates the growing free-market demand for the bones.
Finding fossils for profit is not a new trade. Commercial collectors can claim some of the world's major finds. For instance, all five specimens of Archaeopteryx, considered to be the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and modern birds, were discovered by European quarrymen.
In the late 1800s, feuding eastern paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope routinely paid for bones and directions to fossil beds. But that created dissension, too. Academy of Natural Sciences director Joseph Leidy, the first to confirm evidence that dinosaurs lived in North America, wrote: "Professors Marsh and Cope, with their long purses, offer money for what used to come to me for nothing, and in that respect I cannot compete with them."
Today, commercial diggers often pay landowners to dig on private property, which is fully legal but has driven academic scientists off excavations. Montana's Blackfeet Indians have agreed to let a Canadian fossil firm dig on their reservation, with the tribe getting a share of the proceeds.
Rising prices for privately sold remains have spurred illicit fossil digging on federal lands, experts say. In Nebraska, officials surveyed close to 40 sites known for buried remains of prehistoric mammals, only to learn that about a quarter had been vandalized, some with heavy equipment. They saw what may be the missing bones for sale in rock shops.
Both commercial and scholarly bone hunters recall returning to dig sites only to find an open pothole where an important specimen may once have been.
And when fossils are excavated and sold by unqualified collectors, the data that makes them useful to scientists may be forgotten. Such information is even more important as researchers have become less interested in identifying species of dinosaurs than in learning how they live and socialized.
"Because of commercialization, we're slowly losing access to our fossil resources," argues Hugh Genoways, director of the Nebraska State Museum, known for its early mammal collection. "High prices have stripped away the scientific value of these finds and left perhaps only the aesthetic values. They become merely curiosities for someone's coffee table."
Nonprofit museums do sometimes buy fossils, just as they purchase artwork, but that's becoming less accepted as bone prices rise, says William Clemens, head of the University of California, Berkeley's paleontology museum and incoming president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a group of fossil scholars. Japanese museums commonly hire bone brokers to get them popular dinosaurs, but most American institutions simply cannot afford the asking prices.
Those specimens coming from federal land should be protected as part of the "public heritage," Dr. Clemens says. Some other countries consider all fossils national property.
Private diggers argue that while valuing fossils in monetary terms may cause some unscrupulous activity, it also creates an incentive for people to look for ancient remains as they erode out of cliffsides and weather away. If no one is searching for such finds, say those who make their livings selling them, they crumble to dust.
The proposed federal bill, which would allow amateur rock hounds to pick up fossils only with a permit and under the authority of a "suitable" nonprofit museum or university, would stifle exploration, opponents say.
"Why not cooperate to let as many people look for bones as we can?" asks Larson. "You only make discoveries by getting people in the field. You don't do it by writing bureaucratic laws and bad-mouthing each other."