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Dinosaur Bones Used in Chinese Medicine

Dinosaur bones used in traditional Chinese medicine

There are occasional media reports of local Chinese using dinosaur fossils to make medicine. The use of dinosaurs and other fossils in medicine may be hard 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 in the Far East. Most of the fossils are ground into fine powders and then added to herbs, animal remains, seeds and fruits to make topical remedies. These drugs are used to “cure” a range of ailments from stomach upsets, headaches, and even colds and flu. It may seem strange to us, but as dragons are very important to the local mythology of the most remote areas of China. Dragons are supposed to have magical powers and it is these qualities that convince the locals to take them in potions to cure what ails them.

A dragon – an apt description of a dinosaur

Ironically, the ancient Chinese who first discovered dinosaur fossils were quite accurate in their assessment that they belonged to dragons – giant, monstrous reptiles. Not a bad assumption, a theory that prevailed in the West until the 19th century. Grinding these fossils for medicinal use may also sound strange, I shudder to think what priceless discoveries have been reduced to dust by a shaman. However, fossils are generally only found in sedimentary rocks such as limestone. These alkaline rocks, once ground into a fine powder and ingested, may actually help relieve certain stomach ailments such as acidosis and indigestion. Although, I would never recommend that anyone try it – stick to prescription indigestion meds.

Perhaps we could learn a trick or two from these ancient apothecaries.

Chinese pharmacists helped in the discovery of fossils

It’s not just dinosaur bones that have been lost to science due to Chinese medicine practices. German paleoanthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald was wandering the back streets of Hong Kong in 1935 when he happened upon one of these pharmacies. Curious, he wandered around and found on one of the many shelves, a very large molar (tooth) labeled dragon’s tooth. He knew that this was a fossil and that it was unlikely to come from any known reptile, but what strange animal could have such a huge molar? Dr. Koenigswald bought the tooth and convinced the owner to show him exactly where the tooth had come from. The fossilized tooth was located in a remote cave, where more teeth and some bones were found. Ralph von Koenigswald had discovered a new fossil primate species – the largest ape ever known. He named this new animal Gigantopithecus (Giant Ape), the males are believed to have weighed over 550 kg and if they could stand on their two legs would have been over 3 meters tall.

Fossils of this huge ape have been found in China and Vietnam, it was a herbivore, eating fruit 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 company, it’s amazing what you’ll find on the shelves – even dinosaur bones all ready to be used in traditional medicine.

The locals make the best dinosaur hunters

In the more mentioned parts of China, the locals still maintain many of their traditional beliefs. Dragons remain an important symbol in many cultures and this appreciation and respect has helped many paleontological campaigns. Local people are often very willing to help scientists by taking them to places where “dragon bones” and other ancient remains, which 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 very quickly identify potential excavation sites that deserve further exploration.

China has the largest collection of vertebrate fossils in the world

The Beijing-based Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has built up, largely as a result of working with local people, over the past fifty years or so the largest collection of vertebrate fossils in the world. The Institute referred to by the acronym – IVPP has in its collection something like two hundred and fifty thousand fossilized vertebrate bones. Some of these fossils are those of dinosaurs, as there have been many very important dinosaur discoveries in China in recent years. From the deserts of Mongolia, to the cold depths of the northern plains as well as the world famous Liaoning province – famous for the number of feathered dinosaur fossils that have been found there.

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