When did fossil hunting become a crime? For more than a century since paleontologists and amateurs began looking for geologic evidence to support Darwin, it was a fairly unregulated domain. Ph.D’s partnered with pirates, from the Gobi Desert to the Dakotas. But that all began to change during the ’70s and ’80s, as we learn in this very one-sided documentary, just as Peter Larson was beginning to build a business—and a private museum, called the Black Hills Institute—in Hill City, South Dakota. He and some college buddies began filling warehouses with, and selling, the finds they made on properties following handshake agreements with the owners—some of them Indians whose land was held in trust by the U.S. government.
Flash forward to 1997, when a T. rex skeleton known as Sue sold for more than $8 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s in New York. Larson found those bones in 1990, paid $5,000 to the Sioux Indian on whose ranch he was prospecting. Todd Douglas Miller’s Dinosaur 13 tells Larson’s unhappy story.
Much of Sue’s giddy discovery was captured on grainy VHS, which alternates here with present-day interviews, a few reenactments, and ’90s news footage of Larson’s federal prosecution for theft, wire fraud, and other charges. Were he and his colleagues criminals, poaching bones from tribal or federal land? Sue’s unearthing was before GPS and without legal counsel. Dinosaur 13 presents Larson and his merry band in the best possible light, but their naïveté shines through. There was no contract for Sue, no chain of custody, no clearance from the feds. Oddly, this story—previously recounted in Larson’s 2002 book, Rex Appeal—may be better suited to law students than paleontologists. Good faith collides with an overzealous prosecutor (whom Miller can’t get on camera), and populist anger—cue Bill O’Reilly—confronts federal overreach.
Though this story is 20 years old, it now carries a Tea Party tinge. During one of the TV-oriented ’90s Hill City rallies against the feds, the camera catches a swastika on a protest sign—as if the jackbooted feds were trampling individual rights. (Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City would soon follow.) Dinosaur 13 tries put a happy spin on a long legal ordeal, though it ultimately reinforces the notion that the fossil record (i.e. history) is full of violent, pea-brained killers like Sue, as well as cruelty, sudden death, and mass extinctions—not justice. Opens Fri., Aug. 15 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated PG. 105 minutes.