The Roving Paleontologist

This piece is part of the the Eucid Series, which highlights the voices of contemporary, urban women from Mongolia to draw up a genealogy of female mentorship. At the end of each interview, each woman was asked to name a role model, who was then interviewed—and theirs is the story which will be published next.

This week, we meet Bolortsetsteg Minjin.

Copyright Thea Boodhoo

We started in the Gobi Dessert with a traveling trunk. Inside the trunk we had dinosaurs—fossils and tools for paleontology. We reached out to nomadic kids in small towns. They looked inside our trunk. It was their first time seeing a dinosaur.

We knew we needed something larger. You can’t fit many dinosaurs in a trunk, even a big trunk. And in 2013 the American Museum of Natural History donated the moveable museum.

From the outside, it’s a 37-foot recreational vehicle. A Winnebago. The type of vehicle used for campers driving across the country. Inside, it’s a museum exhibition—nesting Oviraptors and Protoceratops. Mongolian dinosaurs. A display about extinction. A display about feathered dinosaurs from China. Dinosaurs and birds. The whole thing is mounted, bolted down, so it doesn’t move on a road trip.

But we had to ship it. We had to send it from New York to Mongolia. It wouldn’t fit in a container. We had to drive it onto the ship. So we dropped it off in a New Jersey port. We loaded it onto the ship, and it floats to China. From there, we got it up on the back of a big truck. At the China-Mongolia border, we put it on a train to Ulaanbaatar. And there it was. Mongolia’s first moveable dinosaur museum.

We took it to the Flaming Cliffs. It’s a famous place. The first dinosaur egg nest was found in a wall of the Flaming Cliffs. In the 1920s Roy Chapman Andrews’ Expedition found a Protoceratops skull. They like to say it’s the first Mongolian dinosaur discovered.

It was 200 kilometers off-road to get to the Flaming Cliffs. You can imagine the moveable museum isn’t meant for off-road. But we got there. We needed to start there, because of the kids. The kids living there don’t know about dinosaur discoveries, discoveries made in their own backyards.

We had over 30 kids from four different towns at our first workshop, all of them living close to fossil sites. A few kids had heard of the dinosaurs, but they—especially young ones—they talked about dinosaurs like mythical creatures with fire coming out of the mouth and nose. They didn’t know they were real. How could they know? Who was going to show them what those animals look like, that they are real?

We had fossils. We had three touch screens. We had panels, explaining the history of extinction and how to age the fossils. It was all in English. They couldn’t read any of it.

We’ve been back now a few times. It’s starting to change. We’re getting the panels into Mongolian. And Internet is in the towns now. They see dinosaurs on television, the BBC, National Geographic. But even with all that, I asked the kids in Bayankhongor last year, “Which dinosaur comes from Bayankhongor?” They don’t know. They think dinosaurs are things from the U.S. or Europe. They don’t know they are coming from the ground beneath their feet.

We stay on paved roads now. Paved roads are limited, but this bus is the only bus of its kind in Mongolia. Maintenance has been challenging. We went to Bayankhongor, Ovorkhangai, Dalanzadgad, Omnogovi, now Tov aimag.  

We can have 15 kids at a time inside the moveable museum. We tell the teachers that, and it’s funny what happens. They divide the kids by gender. “Okay, girls go first, boys come second.” We are always teaching just the girls or just the boys. In the U.S., it’s boys and dinosaurs—but in Mongolia, they don’t have that idea. When we go to local museums, we get the kids who are interested, the kids who want to come. We always have more girls. In Mongolia, in terms of gender, it’s getting more even. You see more girls than boys studying in colleges and universities.

But then, what happens after they finish is another story. A woman has a family and a kid, and there’s a social and cultural understanding that the woman takes care of the kids. Even, you go to college, but you’re not going to use that education to get a job. Or you get a job, but it’s not a job with decision-making power. Decision-making positions are still male-dominated. Management. Parliament.

When I say I am a paleontologist, Mongolian people ask me: “What is paleontologist?” They don’t know the profession. It makes sense. They don’t know the fossils or the history. I’m a rare species in my country.

Only my family understands, really.

My mother is pretty traditional, so when I was in school, and I was deciding my career, she told me, “Paleontology, geology, these are for men not women.” There’s a social understanding they’re for men, because they’re science. Science is a hard thing.

My father was a paleontologist and a college professor. He’s more open-minded, supportive. I finished my undergraduate as a geologist, and I was going into industry. I was going to work in mining. I was going to be making money, right? But my father told me: “I think you are more for research. You have some skills, some patience and stuff. You are for research and teaching, not for industry.”

Maybe it was because of gender, but he directed me the right way. Of course, he’s from a different school. He’s prepared by the Russians. Russian school of thought on paleontology is different from western. He gave me a book in Russian, a paleontology book, a huge book. He told me to translate. He thought I would understand the concept in Russian that way. And he is descriptive. He is describing species. I named so many coral species, I don’t know how many, but that wasn’t interesting for me.

My focus, my real focus, is education. For example, I’ve worked in fossil repatriation five years, and I’m tired of the circle. Someone steals something, we send it back. They steal it, we send it back.

It’s getting worse. It used to be black market. Now it’s become more open, people selling them in the United States and Europe and Japan in these auction houses. It’s become more visible. They are auctioned like art. They are openly selling fossils taken from our country illegally. Five years ago, it was a Tarbosaurus bataar, almost intact, eight feet tall. Bidding opened almost just under one million dollars at the auction house in New York. I was in New York, and I found out about it three days before on my television. I informed the president’s office. It became a huge thing. We had three days to stop it, and we stopped it.

Since then, we’ve had 30 dinosaurs returned, and there are eight waiting for return and more in exile. I work as a paleontologist to identify Mongolian fossils. I work with Homeland Security. They seize Mongolian fossils, and I give my professional opinion.

But it keeps coming.

We know it’s economically driven. It’s money. You know how is the life in Mongolia. Some people are struggling to survive. We need to work in the source area, where we are losing the fossils, in the fossil sites. Right now, at the Flaming Cliffs, we have nothing. No signs. No paths. No protection. It’s just the cliffs and garbage around and fossils being broken down.

My next step is building a museum, creating a repository and protecting the fossil sites and getting the local community—instead of stealing, how about you are part of the solution, helping us protect the land.

We’ve been doing questions and surveys in the community. The responses are positive. They have very specific questions: “Is it going to be a big museum or a small museum?” “Can I work as a guide?” “Can I work in the store?” For them, it’s something new. Nobody asked or cared about their opinions before. We give them power to be part of the project.

Ten years? It will be built in three.

Tuya Goulden, I think, would be good for this project. She is just this kind of woman. Her work is like mine, but on a different subject. She talks about climate change.


Morgan Thomas received her MFA from the University of Oregon and was the recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright grant to Mongolia.