Dinosaur Bones used in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Reports of in the media occasionally appear reporting about local Chinese people using dinosaur fossils to make medicine. The use of dinosaur and other fossils in medicine may be difficult to believe in the West, but this practice of using fossils in traditional medicine is actually quite common. Indeed, there is quite a trade in various dragon bones and other such items within the Far East. Most of the fossils are ground up into fine powders and then these are added to herbs, animal remains, seeds and fruits to make up local remedies. These medicines are used to “cure” a number of ills from tummy upsets, headaches and even colds and flu. It may seem bizarre to us but as dragons are very important to the local mythology of the more remote parts of China. Dragons are supposed to have magical powers and it is these properties that persuade locals to take them in potions to cure what is ailing them.
A Dragon – an Apt Description of a Dinosaur
Ironically, the ancient Chinese who first discovered dinosaur fossils were pretty accurate in their assessment of them belonging to dragons – giant, monstrous reptiles. Not a bad hypothesis, a theory that did not take hold in the West until the 19th Century. Grinding up these fossils for use in medicine may also sound odd, I shudder to think what priceless discoveries have ended up ground into powder by a shaman. However, fossils are generally only found in sedimentary rocks like limestone. These alkaline rocks, once ground down into a fine powder and swallowed may actually assist in easing certain stomach complaints such as acidosis and indigestion. Although, I would never recommend anyone to try this – stick to the prescribed indigestion remedies.
Perhaps we could learn a trick or two from these ancient apothecaries.
Chinese Apothecaries Assisted in the Discovery of Fossils
It is not just dinosaur bones that have been lost to science due to the practices of Chinese medicine. The German palaeoanthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald was wandering around the back streets of Hong Kong in 1935 when he happened upon one of these pharmacies. Curious, he wandered in and he found on one of the many shelves, a very large molar (a tooth) labelled as a dragon’s tooth. He knew that this was a fossil and that it was unlikely to have come from any known reptile but what strange animal could possess such a huge molar? Doctor Koenigswald purchased the tooth and persuaded the proprietor to show him exactly where the tooth had come from. The fossil tooth was traced back to a remote cave, in which, was found more teeth and some bones. Ralph von Koenigswald had discovered a new fossil primate species – the largest ape ever known. He named this new animal Gigantopithecus (Gigantic Ape), it is believed that the males weighed over 550 kgs and if they could stand their two feet they would have been over 3 metres tall.
The fossils of this huge ape, have been found in China and Vietnam, it was a herbivore, eating fruits and bamboo. However, if you want to see dinosaur fossils and don’t fancy a trip to a museum, try a visit to a local Chinese medicine emporium, it is amazing what things you will find on the shelves – even dinosaur bones all labelled up ready to be used in a traditional medicine.
Local People make the Best Dinosaur Hunters
In the more report parts of China, the local people still hold onto a lot of their traditional beliefs. Dragons remain an important symbol in many cultures and this appreciation and respect has assisted many a palaeontological expedition. The locals are often very willing to help the scientists by taking them to places where “dragon bones” and other ancient relics, that we know as fossils have been found. The support and advice of the local population can save a field team many hours or even days, as they are able to pin-point very quickly prospective dig sites that merit further exploration.
China has World’s Biggest Collection of Fossil Vertebrates
The Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology based in Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of sciences has, largely as a result of co-operating with local people, built up in the last fifty years or so the largest collection of vertebrate fossils in the world. The Institute referred to by the acronym – IVPP has something in the region of two hundred and fifty thousand fossilised bones of vertebrates in its collection. A number of these fossils are those of dinosaurs, as there have been a number of very important dinosaur discoveries made in China over recent years. From the deserts of Mongolia, to the cold depths of the northern plains as well as in the world-famous Liaoning Province – famous for the multitude of feathered dinosaur fossils that have been found there.