Gobi Explorer


Roy Chapman Andrews and the

Central Asiatic Expeditions

By Charles Gallenkamp

Viking -- 344pp -- $29.95

It must have been a thrilling sight: a string of Dodge touring cars bearing Americans--square-jawed, khaki-garbed, armed-to-the-teeth--to brave the grim gravel of the Gobi Desert. The leader of five such Central Asian expeditions from 1922 to 1930, and the subject of Charles Gallenkamp's Dragon Hunter, was Roy Chapman Andrews, in many ways an archetype of the Edwardian gentleman explorer. A middle-class Midwesterner, he was weaned on Daniel Defoe and raised on hunting, hiking, and taxidermy. He resolved early on to become an explorer for the American Museum of Natural History and, with the help of Henry Fairfield Osborn, the museum's director, achieved this goal by age 28. Andrews' early research on Japanese gray whales catalyzed his fascination with Asia that, in tandem with Osborn's theory that early man emerged east of Suez, culminated in the expeditions that made them both famous.

The account of Andrews' exploits leaves the armchair explorer throbbing with sympathetic sunburn. He braved civil war, bandit armies, wolves, and sandstorms to uncover the first fossils of the protoceratops dinosaur and the velociraptor theropod in Mongolia. He explored uncharted forests in Korea and discovered new species of fish in the Philippines. He hung out in geisha houses in Yokohama and in Russian brothels in Peking (though this biographer, coyly, refuses to report on Andrews' sex life on the grounds that the man was a "private" person).

To explore the Gobi, Andrews came up with a novel format: independent, fast-moving teams of scientists in autos, backed by camel caravans bearing food, gasoline, and research materiel. One wonders if Rommel didn't copy Andrews' tactics. To such organizational skills, Andrews added a Yankee flair for showmanship that enabled him to attract the corporate sponsors required to fund his feats. And all the while, he lived the high life, playing polo, wining, and dining; consorting, as the author breathlessly notes, with celebrities such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr., J.P. Morgan, Amelia Earhart, and Noel Coward.

Heady stuff. Yet reading Dragon Hunter, like eating roadhouse chow mein, leaves one with a sense of something undigested. Andrews operated in a crease period, after the European colonialists had cracked open unmapped areas but before the adoption of Western ways allowed the locals to exploit their own territory. The book argues that Andrews was saving fossils for history, but the fact remains that he hauled mountains of scientific evidence out of such areas as Mongolia before locals were cognizant of its value. Finally, Andrews and Osborn labored to prove a racist--and scientifically flawed--version of evolution, which denied evidence suggesting mankind first emerged in Africa.

Gallenkamp takes note of such criticism, but this gets lost amid descriptions of the proto-flapper lifestyle of Andrews and his ilk. The parallels with fictional hero Indiana Jones--the hat, the gun, the aversion to snakes--are often repeated. But perhaps the real similarity lies in the smash-and-grab variety of science both fossickers blithely espoused. Still, such critiques are based on historical hindsight, and Andrews' life is fascinating enough to justify a read on its own swashbuckling terms.

By George Foy

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