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Published November 29, 2007 09:05 AM

Chinese Villagers Battle Police Over Hoard of Fossils

Chinese peasants fought a pitched battle against police, using their tractors and farm equipment as weapons, over a cache of dinosaur fossils the villagers were intending to sell on the black market.

China is the site of several of the world’s most productive fossil sites, and the fossils are often seen as a key to riches for the poor villagers who find them. Seven residents of Shaping village in China’s Henan Province were arrested after the police attack and immediately charged with obstructing justice. The group may also be the first to be tried under a 2006 Chinese law on illegal excavation and sale of fossils. The seven are accused of organizing a “Dinosaur Protection Squad” to prevent government seizure of the fossils.

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Shaping is a hotbed of fossil discovery. Many of the residents have actually donated found fossils to scientists, but there is a significant portion hell-bent on escaping poverty through the ancient bones. China offered no compensation to the Shaping residents for the dinosaur bones they were holding, a fact which angered many of the villagers. The black market in dinosaur fossils is both thriving and profitable. Last year a rare fossilized dino egg nest, reportedly found in China and smuggled out of the country, sold at auction in L.A. for over $420,000.

This is not even the first time Shaping villagers have garnered international attention for a fossil based business. Last year, scientists determined that a “dragon bone” health tonic the villagers were making was in fact composed of ground up fossils. A kilo of the “dragon bones” went for a whopping 50 cents per kilo, or less than 25 cents a pound. The traditional medicine has been common for centuries in China, and is used in treating such illnesses as bone fractures, dizziness, and cramps. So far, the scientific evidence is still missing on the effectiveness of dinosaur based homeopathic bone fracture/cramp/dizziness cures.

Famous Chinese palaeontologist Xu Xing, who discovered the winged microraptor gui dinosaur, had much to say on the subject. Xu, who works out of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, said that many of the farmers in the area of his discovery have done some amateur excavations of their own. He said: “If all of the peasants who have engaged in unapproved dinosaur excavations were caught, tried and jailed, China would not have enough prisons to hold them all.” Xu believes the best course of action would be for the government to offer rewards for people who turn in fossils, rather than merely punishing those who don’t.

The Chinese government recovered the majority of the fossils in question.

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