Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Friday, April 3, 2015

Great Hoaxes ~ The Calaveras Skull

There were quite a few hoaxes in the 1800s. One took place not to far from where I live here in Calaveras County, California. That hoax is known as the Calaveras Skull.

Of course, it is a coincidence that "Calaveras" is the Spanish word for "skull". The county takes its name from the Calaveras River.

The river was named by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga. When he arrived here, he and his expedition found hundreds of skulls of Native American Indians along the banks of the river. They were from those killed in Native America wars between tribes, all over hunting and fishing grounds.

Mark Twain spent time in Calaveras county. It was here in the Angel Hotel in 1865 that he heard the story that became The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. That short story kicked off Mark Twain's career, and put Calaveras County on the map.

This was one of the original counties of the state of California, created in 1850 at the time of admission to the Union. California really didn't have a time as a territory because it became a state just two years after gold was discovered. Gold prospecting in Calaveras County began in late 1848. Placer mining soon gave out around the camps, but an extensive gold-bearing quartz vein of the area's Mother Lode was located during the mid-1850s.

The mines reached their peaks during the 1880s and 1890s, when over 200 stamp mills crushed quartz ore brought in by hand cars on track from the mines. By the time hard rock mining was done, the mines had produced over $20 Million in gold when gold was around $26 an ounce.

The telluride mineral calaverite was first recognized and obtained in 1861 in Calaveras County. It was named for the County of origin by chemist and mineralogist Frederick Augustus Genth who differentiated it from the known gold telluride mineral sylvanite, and formally reported it as a new gold mineral in 1868.

Known as the "Calaveras Skull," it was a human skull found by miners here in one of the many deep mines up in the West Point area of the county in 1866. The town of West Point was originally the name of a camp established here by the famous scout Kit Carson, who was searching for a pass over the Sierra Nevada. The town was originally named Indian Gulch when founded in 1852, but then the name was changed to West Point in 1854. 

On February 25th, 1866, miners found the human skull buried deep inside a mine on Bald Mountain in West Point about 130 feet below the surface beneath a layer of lava. The owner of the mine, James Mattison, gave the skull to a merchant in the town of West Point who in turn passed it on to a local physician. The skull eventually found its way into the possession of J.D. Whitney, the State Geologist of California and Professor of Geology at Harvard University. 

Whitney determined that the skull belonged to a Pliocene age man. This made it the oldest known record of human existence in North America. It also suggested that humans had lived in the Americas far longer than previously thought -- perhaps as long as they had lived in Europe.

The skull purportedly proved that humans and mastodons had once existed in California. Yes, you have to love that about science because they seem to jump to conclusions fairly offend. A year before the skull came to his attention, Whitney published the belief that humans and mastodons coexisted right here in Calaveras County. For Whitney, the skull served to proof out his assertions. 

After careful study, he officially announced its discovery at a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences on July 16, 1866, declaring it evidence of the existence of Pliocene age man in North America, which would make it the oldest known record of humans on the continent. That's right! Here, just a few miles away from where I sit typing this, was the find that shook the scientific world. The oldest known human in America was here in California.  

Surprisingly, it took almost 3 years before its authenticity was challenged. And frankly, somehow I can't wonder how long the scientific world would have accepted it as such if it weren't for a miner who came forth to tell of the hoax?

And yes, that's what took place in 1869 when a San Francisco newspaper declared, "We believe the whole story worthy of no scientific credence... a minister... told us that the miners freely told him that they purposely got up the whole affair as a joke on Professor Whitney."

While the folks now knew that it was a hoax, believe it or not, just like many things today, the scientific community will only believe one of its own -- even if the perpetrators have come forward with the facts of how the hoax was carried out. 

In fact, it took the scientific community another 10 years to proof that the find was not was first reported. Many scientists were disturbed by the fact that a "qualified researcher" had not had a chance to examine the skull. 

It was only after Thomas Wilson of Harvard ran a fluorine analysis on it in 1879, where the results indicated it was of recent origin that the anthropological world accepted the fact that they have been dubbed. That was the first ever usage of fluorine analysis on human bone.

What about J.D. Whitney, the State Geologist of California and Professor of Geology at Harvard University? Well, it is said that tested or not, though locals up in this area knew it was all a joke, Whitney did not waver in his belief that it was genuine. And yes, it is said that he even convinced his successor at Harvard, F. W. Putnam, to also believe and accept the hoax that the "Calaveras Skull" was real. 

By the 1890s the skull was still accepted as "genuine" by the academic community, but it was becoming obvious that it did not fit into the growing fossil record of man's evolution. In 1899, writer Bret  Harte wrote a satirical poem called "To the Pliocene Skull"which proclaimed what everyone else knew in that the skull was a hoax.

So in 1901, Harvard's F. W. Putnam decided to determine, once and for all, whether the skull was authentic. Putnam determined to discover the truth about "Calaveras Skull" actually came to Calaveras County. It was reported that while he was here in Calaveras County, that he did some research and learned that in 1865 a number of Indian skulls had been dug up from a nearby Indian burial site.
Putnam also found out that one of those skulls had been planted in the Bald Mountain mine so that workers would later find it. Putnam, like many in the scientific world who can't accept proof even when it is right in front of their face just as it is today, still declined to declare the skull a fake.

Despite hearing the story of how it was a joke, Putnam simply conceded that "It may be impossible ever to determine to the satisfaction of the archaeologist the place where the skull was actually found."

To further complicate the issue, careful comparison of the skull with descriptions of it at the time of its discovery revealed that the skull that Whitney had in his possession was not the one originally found on Bald Mountain in West Point.

It's true. It appears that a switch was made because a careful comparison of the skull with descriptions of the skull at the time it had originally been found, led investigators to conclude that the two were not the same. In other words, at some point between the time that it had been dug up and the time that it had come into the possession of Whitney, the skull had been switched to falsify the findings.

It now seems clear that neither the skull found in the mine, nor the skull acquired by Whitney, were genuine ancient skulls. The skulls were simply too modern in character to be from the Pliocene age, and in addition, the sediment attached to them was not from the mine deposit, indicating that they had been planted.

No help to Whitney was anthropologist William Henry Holmes of the Smithsonian Institution who investigated the skull around the turn of the century. Holmes determined that the plant and animal fossils that had been discovered near the skull were indeed genuine, but the skull was too modern, and concluded that "to suppose that man could have remained unchanged for a million years, roughly speaking, is to suppose a miracle."

That was the problem from the beginning. The skull was simply too modern in character to be from the Pliocene age. In addition, the sediment attached to it was not from the mine deposit, indicating it had been planted. Subsequently, it was pretty much accepted to many, but not all, that the skull was probably planted by miners playing a practical joke.

In 1911, anthropologist J. M. Boutwell investigated the skull and was told by one of the participants in the discovery that the whole thing was indeed a hoax. Boutwell was told that the miners in Calaveras County did not greatly like Whitney's ways  -- "being an Easterner of very reserved demeanor" -- and were "delighted" to have played such a joke on him. Furthermore, John C. Scribner, a local shopkeeper, claimed to have planted it, and the story was revealed by his sister after his death. 

Radiocarbon dating in 1992 established the age of the skull at about 1,000 years, placing it in the late Holocene age. As you can see, by someone actually taking the trouble to radiocarbon date it in 1992, it took many years before the skull was decisively determined to be a fake to the satisfaction of everyone in the scientific community. Of course, despite evidence to the contrary regarding the "Calaveras Skull," believe it or not, there are those who still believe it was the real deal.

Yes, as strange as it sounds, there are still those who agree with Whitney, who always maintained, that the skull belonged to a Pliocene age man, and was indeed the oldest known record of human existence in North America. To them the skull represents "indisputable fact" that humans had lived in the Americas far longer than previously thought.

From some of my research, the long controversy between those who insisted the skull had been planted at the mine and those who insisted it was a genuine find has not ended. As for regarding the whole "Calaveras Skull" hoax, historian Ralph Dexter concluded, "The desire on the part of miners to play a practical joke, the anxiety of archaeologists to prove the existence of early humankind in North America, the firm convictions and good faith of those involved in an honest mistake, and the confusion resulting from a mix-up of skulls, led to this long drawn-out controversy, unique in the annals of American archaeology."

But frankly, since I am not up on all of other hoaxes in the world of archaeology, I can't help but wonder if this was unique at all? And if you think it doesn't still take place, think again. Besides the whole Global Warming fraud, in November of 2000, one of Japan's leading archaeologists Shinichi Fujimura was something of a celebrity because of his discovery of human settlements in Japan that appeared to be over 600,000 years old. 

Problems for him started when the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper accused Fujimura of planting artifacts that he later claimed to find. They even had pictures Fujimura being caught red-handed burying artifacts at a site. Fujimura confessed to the crime, explaining, "I was tempted by the Devil. I don't know how I can apologise for what I did... I wanted to be known as the person who excavated the oldest stoneware in Japan."

No, we really don't know how much of this has happened in the past and what has or hasn't been accepted as authentic finds recently. Friends, Global Warming and the Calaveras Skull are great examples of the many scientific hoaxes people have tried to get away with. And frankly, it also proves that the scientific world has taken hoaxes as fact when they know it's a hoax, a fraud, a scam, or in this case just a joke.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa

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