Dinosaurs are such a large part of our culture—from books, movies and amusement park rides to children’s toys, clothing and even dino-shaped chicken nuggets—that it’s hard to imagine a time before we knew these huge beasts walked the earth millions of years before us.
The backstory to that revelation is thrillingly outlined in a new book by Reuters senior reporter David K. Randall (Dreamland) called The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World. While on an outing to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Randall and his family kept circling back to the captivating, terrifyingly surreal Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit, prompting his son to ask, “Who found these dinosaurs?” This perfectly reasonable inquiry inspired Randall to consider “the human stories behind prehistoric bones.”
In The Monster’s Bones, Randall delves into early fossil discoveries and scientists’ subsequent interpretations of these bones’ origins. As it turns out, industry titans weren’t the only ruthlessly determined men of the Gilded Age. This era also inspired the “bone wars,” literally a race to find the largest and most complete dinosaur skeletons. Housing these displays at museums and universities was a huge status symbol and a way to draw in the public and boost admission.
Randall focuses on the stories of two very different men who participated in this competition: paleontologist and Princeton graduate Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Barnum Brown, a farmer’s son from Kansas who was a skilled fossil hunter. Brown would travel thousands of miles, from the American West to Patagonia, in order to hunt down prize specimens for Osborn’s American Museum of Natural History. Their intertwined story is full of adventure, intrigue and conflict, leading up to Brown’s world-changing discovery of the ferocious T. rex.
Exciting as any action tale, The Monster’s Bones features characters from all walks of life, from cowboys and ranchers to scientists, railroad magnates and university scholars. As with any valuable assets, greed was a big factor driving this race to succeed. However, it also pushed science ahead by leaps and bounds, leading to findings that still inform paleontologists and biologists today.