Roy Chapman Andrews: A Real Life Indiana Jones
Since the '80s, one name has been synonymous with adventure: Indiana Jones. The iconic film character has been envied and emulated by children, adults, and other fictional characters alike. With his hat and his whip, his brain and his brawn, and that amazing theme music, who hasn’t dreamed of being like Indy, roaming the world and hunting down treasure? One man, Roy Chapman Andrews, was very nearly the real thing. Though his adventures didn’t involve faces melting or hearts being torn out, they were still perilous and often produced artifacts of great significance.
An Adventurous Childhood
Roy Chapman Andrews was born in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1884. As a child, he was an avid explorer of local forests and waterways. In his autobiography, Under a Lucky Star, Andrews describes himself as “like a rabbit, happy only when [he] could run out of doors.” When he turned 9, Andrews received a little single-barrel shotgun, and as he grew up, he became a skilled marksman. He later taught himself taxidermy and used that skill to earn money for his education at Beloit College.
Andrews had known since he was a young boy that he wanted to be an explorer, and he realized that there would be risks in pursuing adventure—but he could not have imagined the peril that he would face on a routine hunting trip while he was still in college. When he was 21, Andrews was duck hunting on Wisconsin’s Rock River with Montague White, a member of Beloit College’s English department. It was March, so both the weather and the waters were cold. The river had also been rising steadily for days and held strong, dangerous currents. On what tragically became the last day of their hunting trip, Andrews and White’s boat was upset and they were thrown overboard, into the frigid river. Andrews was swept away by the current and struggled to swim towards shore. He managed to reach a submerged tree, and finally solid ground, but his friend was not so lucky. White, plagued by muscle cramps, had not made it to the bank, despite being a strong swimmer. This incident made a lasting impact on Andrews and seemed to set a precedent for his future, both in his additional brushes with death and in his attention to safety and detail in his fieldwork.
After graduating from college in 1906, Andrews hopped on a train to New York City to pursue another thing he had wanted since he was a boy: a job at the American Museum of Natural History. When Andrews reached the museum, however, he was told that there were no jobs available. Refusing to be discouraged, Andrews volunteered to scrub the museum’s floors. He was hired to clean and perform basic assistant duties in the taxidermy department, as well as to help the director of the museum with odd jobs when asked. Andrews quickly moved up the ranks and, despite several “better offers” throughout his early career, stayed on with the museum. He was soon doing the type of adventurous fieldwork he had dreamed about.
Andrews’ Early Career and Narrow Escapes
Andrews’ first major interest in the field was marine mammals—specifically whales. This fascination began when, after only being at the museum for seven months, he and colleague Jim Clark were assigned to retrieve the skeleton of a dead whale from a Long Island beach. The director instructed Clark and Andrews to retrieve every bone, but never believed they could do it because of how quickly the bones of beached whales sink into the sand. But Andrews and Clark returned to the museum with the entire whale skeleton; they had guarded it from a storm and retrieved it from the sand in freezing conditions (this whale's bones are still in the museum's department of mammalogy). Inspired by this retrieval, Andrews took part in many expeditions in Alaska, Indonesia, China, Japan and Korea, where he observed and collected marine mammal specimens. As Andrews’ career progressed, his subjects of study expanded and he continued to travel the world in search of animals and their remains.
Like the fictional Dr. Jones, Andrews found he had many brushes with death as he traveled the world. In this quote from his book On the Trail of Ancient Man, Andrews reflects on several of his nearly lethal experiences from his early career:
“In [my first] fifteen years [of field work] I can remember just ten times when I had really narrow escapes from death. Two were from drowning in typhoons, one was when our boat was charged by a wounded whale, once my wife and I were nearly eaten by wild dogs, once we were in great danger from fanatical lama priests, two were close calls when I fell over cliffs, once was nearly caught by a huge python, and twice I might have been killed by bandits.”
A Desert of Discovery
Andrews is best known for the numerous expeditions he led in the Gobi Desert during the 1920s. These expeditions began with the desire to survey the Central Asian plateau in its entirety, including collecting fossils, living animals, and rock and vegetation samples. Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the museum, put his full support behind Andrews, as he hoped the explorer and his team might find evidence that supported his pet theory that Central Asia was the staging ground, or place of origin, of all Earth’s life.
Andrews embarked on his first expedition in the Gobi in 1922. On this trip, Andrews and colleagues from the museum uncovered several complete skeletons of small dinosaurs, as well as portions of larger dinosaurs. These were the first dinosaurs ever to be discovered north of the Himalaya mountains in Asia. They also recovered preserved insects and other animal remains, and secured the largest single collection of mammals to come from Central Asia, including several new species. The results from this expedition, according to Andrews, simply scratched the surface of what could be gained from the Gobi Desert.
With his curiosity piqued, Andrews wanted to dig deep beneath the surface he and his team had scratched, so he proposed and led several more expeditions into the desert. His second expedition, in 1923, provided some of the most groundbreaking finds of Andrews’ career. Arguably the most scientifically significant of these finds was the skull of a small mammal, no bigger than a rat, that had lived alongside the dinosaurs; very few skulls of mammals from this time had been discovered before this one. The skull was found by Walter Granger, the chief paleontologist of Andrews’ team, embedded in sandstone from the Cretaceous period. Not knowing what sort of creature the skull belonged to, Granger labeled it “unidentified reptile” and sent it to the museum so it could be removed from the stone, identified, and perhaps analyzed further. When word came back in 1925, during Andrews’ third expedition, that the skull did not belong to a reptile but instead to one of the earliest known mammals, the team was thrilled. After hearing this news, Andrews and many members of his expedition were resolved to find more remains of these tiny creatures. During this expedition, the team found seven additional mammal skulls, as well as parts of mammal skeletons.
Probably the most famous find to come out of one of Andrews’ expeditions also came in 1923. It was only the second day after making camp that George Olsen, a paleontology assistant, made the find. He rushed into camp reporting that he had found fossil eggs, but was met with quite a bit of skepticism and teasing. Andrews and the others were, of course, still curious to see what Olsen had found, so went to investigate after they finished their lunch. Lo and behold, Olsen had found eggs—dinosaur eggs! There were three eggs exposed, broken out of the neighboring sandstone ledge, and other full eggs and fragments that could be seen embedded in the rock. This was a momentous find because, at that time, scientists weren’t actually sure how dinosaurs reproduced. It was assumed that dinosaurs laid eggs, as they were reptiles, but it had never been confirmed until Andrews’ team found the eggs.
A total of 25 eggs were retrieved during this expedition and the team thought that the location of these finds probably indicated that the spot was a popular breeding ground. What’s more, it wasn’t just eggs that Olsen found; upon further investigation of the first egg site, the skeleton of a small dinosaur was discovered above the nest. It was posited, at first, that this dinosaur was trying to steal the eggs from their nest for a meal, so it was dubbed Oviraptor (egg seizer). Based on later finds of this same dinosaur, however, scientists now believe it was much more likely that the eggs belonged to that dinosaur and it was protecting them.
Andrews found that the public was so facinated by the eggs that they didn't care about the other discoveries made on the expedition. While the constant focus on these eggs irritated Andrews, he found a way to use this to his advantage. He needed more money to mount further expeditions, and while he found support from several rich backers, it just wasn't enough. To spread the word that the small contributions the public could afford would be appreciated, Andrews and the director of the museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, decided to auction off one of the dinosaur eggs they had recovered. All the publicity for this auction included pleas for funding; Andrews is quoted in a New York Times article saying, “We have felt there is no good reason why we should not sell one of these eggs. We have twenty-five of them . . . There is no desire on our part to make any money for the museum, but only to help defray the expenses of the Asiatic expedition.” In the end, Andrews collected $50,000 in public donations in addition to the winning bid of $5000 for the egg, which was won by Mr. Austin Colgate and given to Colgate University as a gift.
Austin Colgate (right) gives Roy Chapman Andrews a check for the dinosaur egg. Photo courtesy of Colgate University's Geology Department.
And a Desert of Danger
The staggering finds made by Andrews and his team were not the only excitement to be had on these Gobi expeditions, however. In Under a Lucky Star, Andrews recounts many dangerous encounters the desert provided. In one instance, Andrews was on his way back from a supply run when he encountered some bandits. He was driving down a steep slope when he saw, at the bottom, four men with rifles on horseback. Knowing he couldn’t turn around on the rocky slope, Andrews decided his best course of action was to head straight for the bandits with some speed. He remembers that as soon as he hit the accelerator, the horses “went mad with fright.” The bandits tried to reach for their rifles, but found that all their effort was needed just to stay on their horses. While three of the ponies ran off into the desert, the fourth, scared stiff, was left behind. Andrews drove right up next to it and, though he easily could have killed the bandit, took a couple of shots at the hat the bandit wore and chased him away. Andrews writes that the hat, which “bobbed up and down . . . was too great a temptation to be resisted.”
Another incident in the desert had Andrews and his team nervous to sleep in their own camp at night—but not because of bandits. The team had their camp set up on high ground and, on one particularly cold night, a great number of incredibly poisonous pit vipers slithered up the slope seeking warmth. The first to notice this invasion was Norman Lovell, a motor engineer, who saw one of the serpents crossing a patch of moonlight in his tent. Lovell was about to get out of bed to kill the snake when he thought to look around before putting his bare feet on the ground. He noticed two snakes coiled around the posts of his bed and the original emerging from under a gasoline box near the head of his cot.
Lovell was not the only one to encounter vipers. Many others found snakes hiding in their shoes and caps and among their rifles. Fortunately, the cold temperature made the snakes sluggish and slow to strike; the men killed 47 snakes in their camp that night. Everyone came out of the incident unbitten and unscathed, but certainly much more wary. Andrews even recalls how he was frightened and how he screamed when he, sometime later, stepped on something soft and round; to his embarrassment and fortune, it was only a coiled rope. This experience certainly made Andrews share Indiana Jones’ dislike of snakes.
Andrews Gives Up the Gobi
Andrews thought there was still much to be learned in the Gobi Desert, but political situations in Mongolia and China forced him to suspend expeditions after 1930. Andrews found that his team was severely restricted in the work they were allowed do and the data they could record, not to mention the drastically increased levels of physical danger they faced from bandits and others hostile towards outsiders.
While this phase of Andrews’ career was over, though, another was getting ready to begin. In 1934, Andrews became the director of the American Museum of Natural History and held this post until January 1, 1942, when he decided to turn the museum over to a younger generation of scientists. After retirement, Andrews and his wife Yvette moved to California. He spent much of the rest of his life writing about his many adventures and died of a heart attack in 1960.
Is Andrews the Inspiration for Indiana Jones?
It is widely believed that Andrews was the inspiration for the ingenious adventurer Dr. Henry Jones Jr. While George Lucas never cited Andrews, or anyone else, as a specific real-life model for Jones’ character, it is known that he took a lot of his inspiration for the series from movie serials of the '40s and '50s that he had seen and enjoyed as a child. It is likely that these movie serials Lucas was fond of took inspiration, in turn, from the scientists and explorers of Andrews’ time. Due to his work and discoveries in the Gobi Desert, Andrews is one of the best-known of this crowd and an influential figure in promoting scientific study. However indirect the inspiration may be, there are no doubts in many people’s minds that Andrews was a model for the famous whip-wielding professor. Andrews even consistently wore a ranger hat on his expeditions; Indy fans know that Dr. Jones, too, would never be caught leaving his hat behind.
Being the Indiana Jones of his time, however, is not Andrews’ only legacy. The Roy Chapman Andrews Society was formed in 1999 in Andrews’ hometown of Beloit to honor the explorer and his influential work. According to the society’s website, the founders were “intent on building more awareness of one of the 20th Century’s most famous explorers,” as well as promoting the small town of Beloit. In honor of Andrews’ life and achievements, the society presents the Distinguished Explorer Award (DEA) every year to an explorer or scientist who has made or contributed to making scientific discoveries of world-wide significance. This year’s award was presented to Dr. John Grotzinger for his work as the lead scientist of the Mars Curiosity expedition.