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Insider: Look Before You Date Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005

Bizarre revelations about the career of a 65-year-old anthropologist who was recently forced to retire from the University of Frankfurt have set tongues wagging in international scientific circles.

Reiner Protsch von Zieten, a larger-than-life professor with a penchant for luxury cars and Cuban cigars, was forced to end his 30-year career as a carbon-dating specialist following a year-long investigation into his professional "indiscretions." Many of Protsch's colleagues had their suspicions about his work, and in 2001 Thomas Terberger of Greifswald University sent several fossil samples originally dated by Protsch to Oxford University's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit for reanalysis. Hahnhöfersand Man, the "world's oldest German" at 36,300 years old, proved to be only 7,500 years old. Binshof-Speyer Woman, a 21,300-year-old specimen known for her remarkably well-preserved teeth, was just 3,090 years old. And Paderborn-Sande Man, dated by Protsch to 27,400 years ago, had died in the eighteenth century. Terberger published a paper on his findings with Martin Street of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, and the University of Frankfurt later launched an investigation. Protsch dismissed the new dates, blaming the results on the possibility that lab workers did not remove shellac from the samples before performing carbon-14 testing.

Then things really got weird. Investigative reports in the German magazine Der Spiegel last year first revealed that Reiner Protsch "von Zieten" had lied about his ties to Prussian aristocracy and was actually the son of a Nazi party member who fled to the United States after the war. Der Spiegel also made public allegations that Protsch was unable to operate his own carbon-dating machine, ordered the destruction of materials in the university archives associated with Nazi medical experiments, and attempted to sell off the anthropology department's chimpanzee skull collection to a U.S. collector for $70,000. Protsch told the magazine that many of the specimens up for sale were part of his personal collection.

Chris Stringer, head of the Human Origins Department at London's Natural History Museum, was misquoted in one British paper as saying Hahnhöfersand was significant in establishing the Neandertal presence in northern Europe, and that without it scientists would have to "rewrite prehistory." Hahnhöfersand was never even considered Neandertal, Stringer tells Archaeology. The redating of the remains has a "negligible" impact on scholarship, he adds.

The situation left many anthropologists scratching their heads. Binshof-Speyer Woman? Who was that? Despite media reports to the contrary, the fossils were actually of little significance on the paleoanthropological playing field. Hahnhöfersand made a bit of a splash in the 1980s when some scholars identified in it both Neandertal and modern human characteristics, but it was always considered controversial. "The three redated specimens were not as pivotal as some reports imply," agrees Martin Street, who sees a bigger issue at hand: "Clearly, it would be ideal if the age of a whole range of other alleged Pleistocene hominid fossils could be confirmed by absolute methods [such as carbon-14 dating], but it remains to be seen whether this lesson will be learned by the anthropological community."

Maybe we should reexamine our whole obsession with age, says Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh. "When scientists thought Hahnhöfersand was really old, they started reading archaic characteristics into it. What are they going to look for now that they know it's 7,500 years old?" Schwartz believes paleoanthropologists should rely more on looks to obtain dates: "The specimen preserves the morphology, so the morphology should inform you about your interpretations of the specimen, not its age--and the Protsch case certainly points out that this kind of scientific approach is the better one."

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America