calaveras skull header

Just after the Civil War, on February 25, 1866–148 years ago today–some miners were prospecting in an old mine on Bald Mountain, in Calaveras County, California, when they happened to come across a human skull. The skull was (supposedly) found beneath a lava bed which also contained fossilized impressions of plants and animals dating back perhaps a million years. The owner of the mine gave the skull to a local merchant, who eventually gave it to Josiah Whitney, State Geologist for California and an eminent light in the field of American geology. After examining the bone Whitney gave an address to a professional group in July 1866 declaring that the skull proved that elephants, mastodons and relatively modern humans coexisted in the Pliocene Age, which would easily be the earliest evidence of human habitation on the west coast of North America.

Not all scientists were convinced, however. For one thing the skull looked awfully similar to modern skulls; if it was a million years old it meant that man had evolved remarkably little in that time. Whitney had published a paper in 1865 asserting his belief that humans, mastodons and elephants lived together in the same geologic era. This was the subject of some disagreement and even ridicule within the scientific community. Whitney had already gotten himself into trouble with his vigorous assertions of how the Yosemite Valley was formed. He said a cataclysm millions of years ago caused the collapse of the valley floor. Others, including naturalist John Muir, said it had plainly been carved out by glaciation. Whitney was not the kind of person who was easily persuaded he was wrong. As in the Yosemite case, he steadfastly insisted that his interpretation was right, and that the Calaveras Skull was genuine and dated from the Pliocene Era.

While most people regarded the Calaveras Skull as a hoax and Whitney a fool (at least with regard to this subject) as early as 1869, the controversy simmered on for decades. In 1901 Harvard anthropologist Frederic Ward Putnam went to California to investigate. He heard stories that pranksters had been digging up old Indian graves as early as 1865 and planting their contents in the mine specifically to hoax people. Furthermore, upon examining the skull Putnam expressed doubts that it was even the same skull as the one that was found in the mine–it seems to have been switched even before it got into Whitney’s hands. Thus the skull was a double hoax: not only a fake planted at an ancient site, but a fake switched for that earlier fake.

fw putnam

F.W. Putnam (1839-1915) debunked the story of the Calaveras Skull. His hypothesis that the skull was of recent origin was later proven by scientific data.

By then Whitney was dead; he passed away in 1896, leaving a body of work and reputation behind at least prestigious enough to have the highest mountain in the continental US named after him. Evidently he breathed his last still believing that the Calaveras Skull was genuine and proved him right. The facts about the skull became even less relevant once young earth Creationists got ahold of the story. Although Whitney was not a young earth Creationist (someone who believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old), dogmatic Creationists in the 21st century continue to cite the Calaveras skull as an example of how scientists reject “evidence” that seems to indicate human beings, dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and other prehistoric creatures supposedly all lived together at the same time, which they think makes a big ole liar-liar-pants-on-fire out of Darwin.

Unfortunately for the Earth-is-only-6000-years-old crowd, and for Josiah Whitney, radiocarbon dating of the Calaveras Skull conducted in 1992 proved it was about 1000 years old. If there was ever any humor to be found in this situation, it seems to have faded pretty quickly after 1866. A not-so-funny bone, indeed.