Little Bits of History

February 25

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 25, 2017

1866: The Calaveras Skull is found by miners. Working Calaveras County, California mines at a depth of 130 feet below the surface, miners discovered a skull beneath a layer of lava. They were able to get their find to Josiah Whitney who was, at the time, the State Geologist of California as well as a Professor of Geology at Harvard University. The year before, Prof. Whitney had published a paper on the co-existence of early humans, mastodons, and elephants. He was delighted to have this physical proof of his theory and he officially announced his confirmation of authenticity at a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences later in the year. He was certain Pliocene age (about 2.5 to 5.3 million years ago) humans were residing in North America which would make them the oldest humans on the continent.

While Prof. Whitney was sure of the veracity of the skull, other were not. In a San Francisco newspaper, a reporter claimed to have been told the skull was a practical joke. This was ignored. In 1879, Thomas Wilson, also of Harvard, ran a flourine analysis (the first time the test was used on human bone) and claimed the skull to be of far more recent provenance. While generally claimed as a hoax, Whitney refused to relinquish his belief as did his successor at Harvard, FW Putnam. Putnam, in an effort to find the truth, traveled to Harvard in 1901.

Putnam was told that in 1865 a Native American’s skull had been dug up from a local burial site and planted in the mine specifically to be found by later miners. Putnam allowed the story may or may not have been true and it was impossible to tell for sure if the skull was fake or not, but he was still sure it was the real thing. Others who found the usefulness of the ancient skull convenient for “proving” their philosophical or religious beliefs also claimed the skull was authentic. Just to further complicate matters, it was later found the skull in question was not even the original skull given to Whiney.

Around the same time Putman was traveling in California, William Henry Holmes of the Smithsonian Institution was also studying the skull. He determined the plant and animal fossils found along with the skull were, in fact, genuine. But the skull was not. It was not even feasible, according to Holmes, to believe that a human skull would be so unchanged after millions of years and would so closely resemble today’s human skull. The skull was declared, with some finality, to be a hoax. Apparently, the miners there did not really like Prof. Whitney, finding him a stuffy Easterner. They were delighted to have been able to trick the revered scientist. Radiocarbon dating in 1992 found the skull to be about 1,000 years old.

It may be impossible ever to determine to the satisfaction of the archaeologist the place where the skull was actually found. – FW Putnam

To suppose that man could have remained unchanged… for a million years, roughly speaking… is to suppose a miracle. – William Henry Holmes

In a secular age, an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax, in order to gain credit in the world. – Angela Carter

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. – Carl Sagan

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