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The Calaveras Skull was a human skull found by miners in Calaveras County, California which purported to prove that humans, mastodons, and elephants had coexisted in California. It was later revealed to be a hoax. Coincidentally, "calaveras" is the Spanish word for "skulls".

On February 25, 1866, miners found a human skull in a mine, beneath a layer of lava, 130 feet (39 m) below the surface of the earth, which made it into the hands of Josiah Whitney, then the State Geologist of California as well as a Professor of Geology at Harvard University. A year before the skull came to his attention, Whitney had published the aforementioned belief of humans, mastodons, and elephants having coexisted and the skull only served as proof of his convictions. After careful study, he officially announced its discovery at a meeting of the California Academy of Science 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.

However, its authenticity was immediately challenged. In 1869 a San Francisco newspaper reported that a miner had told a minister that the skull was planted as a practical joke. Thomas Wilson of Harvard ran a fluorine analysis on it in 1879, with the results indicating it was of recent origin. It was so widely believed to be a hoax that Bret Harte famously wrote a satirical poem called "To the Pliocene Skull" in 1899.[1]

Nevertheless, Whitney did not waver in his belief that it was genuine. His successor at Harvard, F. W. Putnam also believed it to be real. By 1901 Putnam was determined to discover the truth and he headed to California. While there, he heard a story that in 1865, one of a number of Indian skulls had been dug up from a nearby burial site and planted in the mine specifically for miners to find. However, Putnam still declined to declare the skull a fake, instead conceding, "It may be impossible ever to determine to the satisfaction of the archaeologist the place where the skull was actually found."[2]

To further complicate the issue, careful comparison of the skull with descriptions of it at the time of its discovery revealed that the skull Whitney had in his possession was not the one originally found.[2]

However, J. M. Boutwell, investigating in 1911, was told by one of the participants in the discovery that the whole thing was indeed a hoax.[3] The miners of the Sierra Nevada apparently did not care for Whitney much "being an Easterner of very reserved demeanor" and were "delighted" to have played such a joke on him.[2] Furthermore, John C. Scriber, a local shopkeeper, claimed to have planted it, and the story was revealed by his sister after his death.[4]

The Calaveras Skull continues to be cited by creationists as proof that paleontologists ignore evidence that doesn't fit their theories,[5] although others have acknowledged that the Calaveras Skull is a hoax.[6]

References

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The Calaveras Skull was a human skull found by miners in Calaveras County, California which purported to prove that humans, mastodons, and elephants had coexisted in California. It was later revealed to be a hoax. Coincidentally, "calaveras" is the Spanish word for "skulls".

On February 25, 1866, miners found a human skull in a mine, beneath a layer of lava, 130 feet (39 m) below the surface of the earth, which made it into the hands of Josiah Whitney, then the State Geologist of California as well as a Professor of Geology at Harvard University. A year before the skull came to his attention, Whitney had published the aforementioned belief of humans, mastodons, and elephants having coexisted and the skull only served as proof of his convictions. After careful study, he officially announced its discovery at a meeting of the California Academy of Science 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.

However, its authenticity was immediately challenged. In 1869 a San Francisco newspaper reported that a miner had told a minister that the skull was planted as a practical joke. Thomas Wilson of Harvard ran a fluorine analysis on it in 1879, with the results indicating it was of recent origin[citation needed]. It was so widely believed to be a hoax that Bret Harte famously wrote a satirical poem called "To the Pliocene Skull" in 1899.[1]

Nevertheless, Whitney did not waver in his belief that it was genuine. His successor at Harvard, F. W. Putnam also believed it to be real. By 1901 Putnam was determined to discover the truth and he headed to California. While there, he heard a story that in 1865, one of a number of Indian skulls had been dug up from a nearby burial site and planted in the mine specifically for miners to find. However, Putnam still declined to declare the skull a fake, instead conceding, "It may be impossible ever to determine to the satisfaction of the archaeologist the place where the skull was actually found."[2]

To further complicate the issue, careful comparison of the skull with descriptions of it at the time of its discovery revealed that the skull Whitney had in his possession was not the one originally found.[2]

However, J. M. Boutwell, investigating in 1911, was told by one of the participants in the discovery that the whole thing was indeed a hoax.[3] The miners of the Sierra Nevada apparently did not care for Whitney much "being an Easterner of very reserved demeanor" and were "delighted" to have played such a joke on him.[2] Furthermore, John C. Scriber, a local shopkeeper, claimed to have planted it, and the story was revealed by his sister after his death.[4]

The Calaveras Skull continues to be cited by creationists as proof that paleontologists ignore evidence that doesn't fit their theories,[5] although others have acknowledged that the Calaveras Skull is a hoax.[6]

References

External links

R. E. Taylor, Louis A. Payen and Peter J. Slota, Jr. The Age of the Calaveras Skull: Dating the "Piltdown Man" of the New World. American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Apr., 1992), pp. 269-275 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/280732


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