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A practical joke in gold rush California sparks a decades-long scholarly debate and still has believers today


The Calaveras skull from the cover of William Henry Holmes' preliminary debunking of it

On July 18, 1866, Josiah Whitney presented a paper describing a skull that had been recently found near Angels Camp in Calaveras County to the California Academy of Natural Sciences. Whitney, head of the state's geological survey, explained that it came from a mineshaft at depth of 130 feet, in gold-bearing alluvial gravels that were later buried beneath million-year-old volcanic deposits. "The skull is, therefore, not only the earliest pioneer of this State, but the oldest known human being," reported the San Francisco Alta the following day. "It is scarcely necessary to say that the announcement and remarks of Professor Whitney made a profound sensation at the academy."

Unfortunately, the skull looked very much like that of a Native American--and for good reason. It was a hoax and had been planted in the mine. Nonetheless, various groups have claimed it to be real over the past 150 years--and some still do. Along with Whitney, the players in the original drama included James Mattison, miner; John Scribner, Angels Camp storeowner; William Jones, physician and natural history buff; and William H. Holmes, Smithsonian archaeologist.

It was Dr. Jones who sent the skull to the geologic survey, where it arrived on June 29, 1866. After examining it, Whitney went to Angels and interviewed Mattison and Scribner. Mattison said he dug up the skull in his mine in February, but thought it was a tree root. He took it to Scribner's store, where a clerk cleaned it and realized it was a skull. It was then sent to Jones. Whitney believed they were both truthful.

But denizens of gold-mining camps were given to broad humor (as in Mark Twain's "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"). A Mr. Blakeslee wrote in an 1869 San Francisco Bulletin story, that a local minister said, "miners freely told him that they purposely got up the whole affair as a joke on Prof. Whitney." Shortly after Whitney's announcement, Bret Harte wrote the poem "To The Pliocene Skull":

Speak, O man less recent!
Fragmentary Fossil!
Primal pioneer of Pliocene formation,
Hid in lowest drifts below the earliest stratum
Of volcanic tufa!
When the skull finally speaks, several stanzas later, it reveals a less-than ancient history: name is Bowers, and my crust was busted
Falling down a shaft in Calaveras county,
But I'd take it kindly if you'd send the pieces
Home to old Missouri!

Thirty years later, a skeptical Holmes went to Calaveras to investigate. He examined animal and plant fossils found in the gravels and artifacts supposedly from them. He read the description of the skull in Whitney's reports and saw it first hand at Harvard's Peabody Museum. He found that the plant and animal fossils were of extinct species, while the skull and tools matched those of Native Americans in California. The natural finds were clearly of great geologic age, but the human remains and artifacts were not. "To suppose that man could have remained unchanged physically; to suppose that he could have remained unchanged mentally, socially, industrially, and esthetically for a million years, roughly to suppose a miracle," wrote Holmes. "To suppose again that the ancient people disappeared as a result of nature's mutations, leaving their bones and handiwork...and that another people, springing up or appearing on the same spot in recent years, have duplicated each and every character, activity, and art form, is to suppose the impossible."

It was clear to Holmes that the skull had been placed in the mine. Scribner and Jones were dead in 1898, but Holmes heard the same tale from locals present at the time: Scribner and a few others, all friends of the Jones, were in on it and knew the skull had been planted in the mine. Mattison, who was a dupe, found the skull, which was sent to Jones, who was the target of the prank. According to hotelkeeper J.L. Sperry, Jones come out of his office and threw the skull into the street, explaining that "the skull had been brought to him as a relic of great antiquity, but he had just discovered cobwebs in it, and concluded that he had been made the subject of one of Scribner's practical jokes." But the doctor had second thoughts and picked it back up so he could give it further consideration. Intended as a practical joke, the skull was taken as a genuine Pliocene fossil by Jones--and then by Whitney.

In 1901, Rev. Mr. Dyer, who had been a missionary at Angels Camp in the 1870s, said that Scribner confessed to planting the skull in Mattison's mine. George Stickle, postmaster and Scribner associate, told Holmes that it had come from a burial place in Salt Spring Valley west of Angels.

Despite these revelations, the skull still had scholarly defenders at the turn of the century, notably Frederic Putnam at the Peabody. Adherents of Theosophy accepted it as genuine. Madame Blavatsky, the movement's founder, contended that man was "originally a colossal pre-tertiary giant, and that he existed 18,000,000 years ago." In 1937 Theosophy magazine noted the supposed discovery of giant's skeleton in Nicaragua, predicting that the scientific world would ignore it, "The Calaveras skull was just such a find. And how was this disposed of? It was of a modern type, therefore a fake."

Conservative Christians, early skeptics because the skull seemed to be a pre-Adam human, later embraced it as proof mankind has existed for a long time unchanged by evolution. Recently, Jonathan Sarfati dismissed the skull as "probably a hoax" in Arguments Creationists Should NOT Use. But it still is widely cited, as in Walt Brown's 2008 In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood.

This long-running hoax carries on even though carbon dates in 1992 suggested that the cranium was perhaps 1,000 years old, backing up Holmes' conclusion made more than a century ago. In 1866 this practical joke fooled Dr. Jones and Josiah Whitney. Since then, it has been accepted by various groups who seem to be clutching at skulls in the search for evidence to support their views.