Friday, April 13, 2012

Fun Friday Facts #34: False Fossils Edition

Bet you didn't know that if you type “fossil hoaxes” into Google you'll get about four real results and about seventy bajillion EVOLUTION IS A LIE!!!!! results. No, neither did I.

It made it really hard to research this. ~ Amy Watts

You tend to think of fossils in general and fossil hoaxes in particular as being kind of modern things. After all, they didn't really start digging up dinosaurs in earnest until the late 1800s. Those of you who've been following along at home will know that I'm about to knock your socks off with some mind-blowing revelation about fossil-hoaxing in the ancient world.

1) From at least 3,000 BC, residents of the Mediterranean island of Malta collected fossilized sharks' teeth. Shark teeth, especially the fossilized teeth of the enormous prehistoric Megalodon, were considered sacred. Their serrated edges also made handy tools for early Maltese potters who wanted to decorate their goods with even rows of grooves and, presumably, instill them with extra godliness. Fossilized marine animals and mammoth tusks were also popular in Maltese temples. Evidence suggests that “fossil” shark teeth and sea creatures were manufactured on Malta from baked clay and limestone as early as the Neolithic period.

2) According to medieval European legend, fossil sharks' teeth, known as “Maltese tongues,” were capable of protecting against poison. St. Paul the Apostle was bitten by a Maltese snake while shipwrecked on the island in 60 AD. Paul was unharmed, but, as punishment to the island's snakes, he took away their venom, eyes and tongues. Medieval Europeans therefore called used fossilized Maltese sharks' teeth, or “tongue stones,” to remove poison from their wine before drinking. The teeth were mounted and hung from “languiers,” or decorative coral trees, at banquets. Guests would choose a “tongue” and dip it in their wine goblet to remove any poison. Maltese shark tooth fossils became so popular that laws were passed to prevent their forgery.

"My brother died of poison!" "I told you not to trust that shifty-eyed shark tooth salesman."

3) So, by now you've probably figured out that people didn't just suddenly start discovering fossils out of nowhere the year after Darwin published The Origin of Species. Some people have always believed that fossils were the petrified corpses of dead animals. Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, put forth another theory, as he was wont to do – that the fossils were never actually alive, but were formed in the stone by a higher creative intelligence, or God. Christianity, which just loves the sh*t out of Aristotle for some reason, picked up the theory and will never, ever, ever let it go.

F*ck you, Aristotle.

But I didn't tell you that just to be nasty to ancient Greek philosophers. In the 1700s, a professor named Johann Beringer was Chief Physician to the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg, and Chair of Natural History of the University of Wurzburg. Beringer was what we'd now call a creationist; he supported Aristotle's theory, that fossils were placed, intact, in the earth by a higher intelligence, basically God.

Two of his colleagues, Johann von Eckhardt and Ignatz Roderick, thought Beringer was wrong. They also thought he was an obnoxious douchenozzle, or would have if douchenozzles had been invented then. So, they came up with a plan.

Roderick and Von Eckhardt fabricated fossils out of limestone and planted them for Beringer to discover during his next dig. These weren't just any fossils; they showed spider webs, insects, even frogs in the act of mating. The next dig yielded “fossils” with writing – in Hebrew and Babylonian – on them. Beringer, completely taken in, rushed out and wrote a whole book about it.

With illustrations by the author.

He didn't catch on until his next dig turned up fossils with his own actual name on them. By then, his book was published. Beringer, furious, filed a lawsuit. He won the case. Roderick and Von Eckhardt were disgraced and their careers ruined. Beringer published several more books, this time with real fossils in them.

4) Some of you have probably heard of the Piltdown Man. For more than 40 years, from 1912 to 1953, it was believed to be the missing link between apes and humans.

No one really knows who forged the skull of the Piltdown Man, but it was probably Charles Dawson. Dawson, it was later pointed out, had already forged at least 38 fossils and antiquities, including an English Channel sea serpent, which is not a thing that exists.

On 18 December 1912, Dawson went before the Geological Society of London to show them a skull that, he said, he received from a Piltdown gravel pit workman. The skull had been smashed because, Dawson said, the workers thought it was a coconut.

Sure they did.

Intrigued by this coconut, er, skull, Dawson returned to the site to investigate. He discovered an ape-like jawbone that, except for two very human-like molars, appeared to be full of monkey teeth. The skull was human-like, but too small to accommodate a modern-human-sized brain. The ape-like jawbone seemed to confirm the contemporary theory of human evolution, that the modern human brain evolved before the modern human diet.

Sense: It makes none. ~ Anrie

Other scientists called bullsh*t on this one right away. G.S. Miller pointed out that it was awfully convenient how the skull got smashed, since that allowed Dawson and his crew to put it back together any way they pleased. Prof. Arthur Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons used a copy of the fossil fragments to reconstruct a Piltdown Man skull that looked suspiciously like that of a modern human, because, as it would turn out much, much later, that's exactly what it was.

Dawson turned up a second Piltdown Man (called Piltdown II cause it was the sequel) in 1915, which seemed validate his earlier find. He died in 1916, putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. Scientists grew increasingly suspicious as the decades passed, and more and more legitimate humanoid fossils turned up, but never anything remotely like the Piltdown Man. By 1953, accurate dating technologies were finally invented. Evolutionary biologists Joseph Weiner, Sir Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark and Kenneth Page Oakley demonstrated that the Piltdown Man fossil was a combination of 500 year old orangutan jaw, fossilized chimpanzee teeth and a medieval human skull.

5) Meanwhile, in America, Nebraska geologist and rancher Harold Cook discovered a fossilized tooth in 1917. The tooth was identified as belonging to an early species of North American ape, named Hesperopithecus haroldcookii, but referred to in the press as Nebraska Man. The creature was believed to be similar to Java Man, or Homo erectus.

Scientists descended on the site in 1925 to look for the rest of the skeleton. They found it, and, to their perhaps never-ending chagrin, realized that it belonged, in fact, to an extinct species of peccary.

Human evolution is really getting weird.