GEOL 204 Dinosaurs, Early Humans, Ancestors & Evolution:
The Fossil Record of Vanished Worlds of the Prehistoric Past

Spring Semester 2015

Who Owns the Fossil Record? Hoaxes and the Commercial Trade in Fossils

A Matter of Trust
All the science discussed throughout the course is predicated on the idea that fossils are the authentic record of life in the past. Our disagreements about them would be differences of interpretation, but we accepted that the bones, teeth, wood, leaves, shells, etc. are the remains of REAL bones, teeth, wood, leaves, shells, etc. But what happens when they aren't? Or aren't in their original association? What happens when people--for whatever reason--fake the fossil record? Although they are relatively rare, there are (sadly) many notable examples. And these illuminate some of the different motives behind making faux fossils.

Beringer's Lügensteine (Lying Stones)
The first case dates back to the earliest days of paleontology. In the early 1700s natural historian Johann Bartolomeus Adam Beringer (of the University of Würzburg, Bavaria) often made collections of fossils from nearby Mount Eibelstadt. He was one of the thinkers who did not think that fossils were the remains of ancient life; rather, that they were the direct manifestation of the Mind of God trying to speak to us. Eventually he began to turn up truly remarkable fossils: not just the hard parts, but the shapes of entire animals and plants, and eventually text in Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and the like (including the name of God).

Convinced that this evidence had clinched his hypothesis, he published a book in 1726 describing these stones and his interpretation of them.

To our modern eye, even a non-paleontologist can clearly see these are fakes: carvings on the native stone. But these were still the early days of the field, so even an expert of the time was fooled (largely because it was all consistent with own favored hypothesis). However, he realized he had been tricked when some of the stones showed up with his own name written on them.

The hoaxers where his own colleagues: mathematician/geographer Jean Ignace Roderique and chief librarian Johan Georg von Eckhardt. They felt he was "so arrogant and despised us all", so they wanted to publicly shame him. The hired an artisan to help create the images, and a team to help plant the stones in areas they new Beringer liked to prospect.

Beringer tried to buy back all the copies of his book, and took the two to court. The hoaxers themselves wound up disgraced, while he kept his job. But afterwards he (and others) called these faux fossils "die Lügensteine: the "lying stones").

Koch's Creations: Missourium and Hydrarchos
The end of the 1700s and the early 1800s were a time of many discoveries in the young United States. Among the most famous natural history finds of the time was the discovery in 1799 of the first complete mastodon (Mammut americanum) near Newburgh, NY. It's excavation by artist/naturalist Charles Wilson Peale was a celebrated local sensation, as was his display of this complete skeleton at his Museum in Philadelpha in 1806.

The success of the mastodon bringing in paying visitors did not go unnoticed, so that a generation later someone figured that creating their own even more impressive skeletons would be yet more lucrative. That person was Albert Koch, an exhibitor of "curiosities". In 1835 he had set up an exhibit hall in St. Louis, and five years later received word of a complete mastodon found on a Missouri farm. He acquired this, as well as other partial mastodon skeletons. He combined the different specimens together (with wooden spacers between the vertebrae to enhance the length), resulting in a skeleton 32' long (twice that of a real mastodon), with the tusks mounted in an odd position. His signs declared this fossil the Missourium, largest of all terrestrial animals.

The "Missourium" was the hit of his exhibit hall. In fact, it was so popular that after just one year he sold the rest of his collect and the exhibit hall itself, and took Missourium on tour around the country. As natural historians would send in letters to the local newspapers warning the public that this was a fraudulent skeleton, he actually played on the public notoriety (asking for them to pay for the privilege of seeing it so "they can decide for themselves"). Eventually he sold Missourium to the British Museum, which took it apart and remounted the main individual skeleton properly.

In 1845 Koch became interested in acquiring a Basilosaurus skeleton for display, and managed to get a good partial skeleton and at least six other individuals. He strung these together (with some ammonoid shells added as extra bones!) to create a sea serpent skeleton, which he named Hydrarchos, ruler of the waters! The resultant fossil was 114' long, much longer than a real Basilosaurus.

As with Missourium, Hydrarchos went on tour in the US, and then Europe. The Prussian king (ignoring the words of the paleontologists) bought the specimen and demanded having it displayed at the natural history museum in Berlin. (It is still there, but long since dismantled into its various components). Koch actually got a new set of fossils, created a Hydrarchos version 2.0 (this one a mere 96' long), and took that on tour in 1848. That specimen was acquired by another curiosity exhibitor, who had it on display in Chicago (under the then-used name for Basilosaurus: Zeuglodon) until it was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

"Eoanthropus dawsoni": Piltdown man
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, early humans had been found in France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and other continental European countries, but not yet the United Kingdom. Furthermore, there was a particular theory of human origins developed at this time (this was before the fossils of earlier homininans from Africa had been discovered): it was thought that humans developed our characteristic powerful brain first, and only later developed a fully upright stance, grasping hands, reduced lower jaw, and so forth.

That changed at the 12 December 1912 meeting of the Geological Society of London. At that event, a paper was presented by paleoanthropoligst Arthur Woodward Smith, who told the following story: In the years 1908 to 1912, amateur archaeologist and antiquities collector Charles Dawson and his crew had found various remains from the Pleistocene deposits of human-like fossils and artifacts. (Dawson claimed that the workmen saw the top of the skull sticking out of the sediment, and thought it was a fossilized coconut). In the summer of 1912 Dawson approached Smith Woodward to help him collect, and the two worked together. However, Smith Woodward happened to be gone every time Dawson actually found remains of the proto-human.

The skull that Smith Woodward reconstructed from the remains had a human (or human-like) upper skull, as well as much more ape-like teeth and lower jaw; he named this a new species "Eoanthropus dawsoni" (Dawson's dawn man).This was Britain's major contribution to paleoanthropology, and it conformed to the "big brains first" model, since its braincase was practically modern but its jaw ape like.

Several other paleontologists and paleoanthropologists immediately challenged the idea that these bones and teeth were from the same species, or that they were in fact from the Ice Age. However, many accepted these specimens as genuine because they fit into their views. In 1915 Dawson brought some more specimens and artifacts to Smith Woodward from a new site about 2 miles from the originally locality; however, Dawson died in 1916 before revealing that location. After his death, not a single "Eoanthropus" fossil was ever found again.

However, in the following decades discoveries from Asia and (especially) Africa demonstrate that the "big brains first" model did not fit the vast majority of members of the human ancestral lineage: instead, they tended to be upright first, and only developed big brains later. Suspicion that "Piltdown Man" was a hoax grew; "Eoanthropus" was becoming less and less consilient with the growing body of evidence of other members of the human lineage whose authenticity was not in question.

It was confirmed in the 1950s as new chemical age-dating techniques became available, and showed that these were not a single ancient fossil, but instead a medieval human skull, a more recent orangutan jaw, and fossil chimpanzee teeth, all treated with chemicals to appear fossilized. To this day we do not know for certain who the hoaxer was, although Dawson is the primary suspect, nor the actual motive. But it is clear that many people fell for this forgery because it fit comfortably with their preconceived notions and their national prejudices.

(It should be noted that Dawson was linked to over 38 other hoaxes concerning antiquities.) It is uncertain if Smith Woodward was in on the hoax, or simply the "patsy" of the con-game. It appears that at least some of their contemporaries were aware that it was a hoax, as Dawson & Smith Woodward did uncover the rib of a wooly mammoth carved to resemble that most British of tools, a cricket bat!. (Smith Woodward considered it an authentic club of the Piltdown Man.)

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Last modified: 13 May 2015