Top Ten Fraudulent Fossil Cases Throughout History
As I was hiking up one of the tallest mountains in Taipei the other day, I came across an exposure of sedimentary rocks that appeared to be somewhat recent, and with very clear marks that looked like fossils. As I looked closer, I saw some markings that looked a lot like plants. I had heard that this particular region had a number of really well preserved plant fossils – and these looked just like ones I had seen online (click on the pic to enlarge it).
Well, it turns out after I poked at it a bit, a piece of it lifted up. After a few kicks, the plant fossil scratched away entirely. It turns out it was a really flattened modern plant that has gotten somewhat muddy and adhered itself to a really flat piece of mudstone.
The next day, I visited one of the first fossil sites ever discovered in the country of Taiwan, in Miaoli County. As I was walking, I saw a sandy exposure along the road, with seashells all over the ground. Here is a picture of some of these shells:
It turns out these weren’t seashells that were pushed up from a beach a few hundred feet away, after some big storm. But in fact, they were real fossils, that had been preserved in sandstone since the Miocene, perhaps sometime between 10 and 20 million years ago. Here you can see a video of some of the fossils from this particular locality (and the nearby rock wall, while it may look like a sandy dune near a beach, I assure you, is as hard as cement).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLnOOahle7A (and below is a really good, cleaned & prepared example of this type of fossil)
It goes to show that you can find “fraudulent fossils” anywhere (stay tuned for the upcoming release of my new Galactic Academy of Science series book “The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil”), and can sometimes be fooled by some really well preserved fossils in special localities into thinking that they are merely modern (extant) remains. In my book, I mention one case of accused fossil fraud in the 1700’s, but I was inspired to look more into other fraudulent fossils over time.
It turns out there have been many cases of malicious fossil fraud in paleontology throughout time. Some of these fossils were “faked” to gain scientific fame, and some were done with the intent to gain money. But the bottom line, is that these so called important fossils, have been debunked, using scientific methodology, just like the missing link fossil in my book. Here is a list I compiled of some of the most well known cases of fossil fraud throughout history:
10. Brazilian Irritator
This was a species of Cretaceous spinosaur (meat eating theropod with huge spines on its back), that was named because of the irritation that the discoverers/authors felt when they realized that they had a fraudulent fossil. It was identified in 1996, from a partial skeleton and skull, which was given to paleontologists at a museum in Brazil. However, it was partly altered with plaster by fossil thieves, who had changed its appearance to make the fossil seem more intact. In doing so, they elongated the skull of a known dinosaur species, and made researchers believe that they had discovered a new animal altogether. It was never a real animal, but for quite some time, it fooled paleontologists who thought it may indeed by a new type of spinosaur with a very long alligator-like skull. The official name of the not-real-species is Irritator challengerii named after Prof. Challenger in “The Lost World.”
9. Chinese Dragon Bones / Peking Man
It is thought that Chinese have believed in dragon mythology for thousands of years, with the earliest depictions being in Neolithic caves in Asia between 5,000 and 6,000 B.C.. It has long been thought that the bones of petrified dragons could be found throughout China, although these have all since that time been identified as fossilized dinosaur bones or other types of more recent fossils, including reptiles, birds, mammals and even humans. These “dragon bones” were thought have special curing powers and were commonly sold by ancient “pharmacies” to heal illnesses. One such case of early human and mammal bones being sold as dragon bones was just outside of Peking, which is now known as modern day Beijing, the capital of China. Peking Man (homo erectus pekinensis) was a very early human ancestor who lived around 700,000 years ago, and was discovered in the 1920’s in a locality known as “Dragon Bone Hill”, named because it was a quarry from which these fraudulent medical dragon bones were regularly extracted. A Swedish-American team first identified the possible human ancestors from teeth that they found in this hill – these fossils otherwise may have ended up as medicine. Originally, early hominid bones were thought to be merely misformed apes (such a Eugene Dubois’ discovery of Homo erectus in 1891), but it wasn’t long before the study of early human ancestors picked up. Peking Man also faced further controversy later on when its bones were stolen during one of the World Wars, never to be found again. These “dragon bones” weren’t necessarily malicisously replicated or altered fossils, but they were purposely misidentified and as such I decided to thrown them in as “fraudulent fossils”.
8. Sicilian Maltese-manufactured fossils of invertebrates and fish:
Since the 6th Century BC, Romans have loved fossils and had adorned their palaces and places of worship with various types of invertebrate and vertebrate fossils (the Temple of Juno bore woolly mammoth tusks). 3,000+ years ago, teeth of large extinct great-white sharks called Carcharadon were found at sacred sites throughout Italy and Greece. Not to mention, these fossil teeth were also regarded as a form of medicine throughout Europe too. They were commonly faked with extant bones and bones of other extinct animals, and as such, laws were even passed to prevent selling fake fossils.
Gastropods and other sea fossils were replicated in large quantities – baked in clay ovens and used in religious rituals throughout Roman times. Some of these fakes were even discovered in Minoan remains in Crete – some of the earliest examples of faked fossils.
7. Calaveras Skull
A human skull found by laborers in Calaveras, CA, in the late 1860’s, which was given to a Harvard geology professor (Dr. Whitney) who believed that humans and mastodons (mammoths) coexisted in North America. The skull, which was found deep inside a mine, underneath volcanic debris, was thought to be the earliest known record of man in North America. However, by the early 1900’s another professor from Harvard visited the site to investigate further, and it was determined that it was likely placed there within the mine by workers who did not like Dr. Whitney (and had sourced the skull from nearby ancient native burial grounds) . Other fossils of Pliocene mammals and plants which were found nearby were genuine, however the skull was in fact from a relatively modern man (within the past 1,000 years, though not from the 1800’s), and was put there as a hoax, which was believed for decades. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calaveras_Skull
6. Moroccan Trilobites
It’s sad to say, but we at THL have been accused of creating our own fraudulent fossils based on Moroccan trilobites. Here is a picture of a Morrocan trilobite, at the Taiwan National History Museum; it is very similar to the ones we have used for internal team building exercises at THL (pic below – compare to the THL Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/tumblehome.learning).
However, we have done so for our own fun, and not for profit or for scientific fraud. It is a well known fact among fossil collectors that Moroccan trilobites have a very large amount of mold piracy and forgery. Many of these fossils, which are available on Ebay and collector sites, and via nature stores throughout the world, are made of a carefully developed plastic resin and are attached to real matrix (pieces of limestone, mudstone, etc), via glue, and inserted into holes which are manually chipped/fitted by laborers. Trilobites are a favorite collector item for fossil lovers, because they are all quite old (they became extince during the Permian mass extinction, so they are all hundreds of millions of years old), and they have a very unique appearance. Coincidentally, if you purchase a copy of ‘Fraudulent Fossil’ direct from THL, we will send you a trilobite keychain or necklace/ornament, of your choice. (external link with more information: http://www.fossilmuseum.net/collect/faketrilobites3.htm)
5. Cardiff Giant
This “giant human fossil” was one of the biggest hoaxes in US scientific history. In 1869, workers digging a well behind the barn of a man named William Newell in New York, discovered a huge stone human in the ground, over 10 feet tall. It was created by a man named George Hull who spend thousands of dollars (at the time, a huge sum of money) to create controversy within religious circles – to disprove a prominent group of people who thought that a race of giant men once roamed the Earth. It was in fact a highly detailed stone sculpture, which was buried under the ground, and left for a considerable amount of time to appear to be weathered. P.T. Barnum later offered to buy the giant, but when he was refused, he created his own and put it on display in his own facility. As a result of this, David Hannum, one of the people who owned a stake in the original giant, was the inventor of the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”. You can still view this fraudulent fossil in a farm museum in upstate New York. http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1989_11_pick.html
4. Acinonyx Kurteni – Linxia Cheetah
This is a highly debated and controversial discovery of the first cheetah in history, from China. It is estimated to be 2.5 to 2 million years old – an “Old World” cheetah. It was described in 2008 and then published a year later in a paper in the well known publication PNAS, but since then has been criticized publicly by a variety of experts in China who have seen the fossil and believe that it was faked. Deng Tao, from the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in China, noted that parts of the skull were created from plaster, and are missing part of the parietal crests. Qiu Zhanxiang, a global expert in mammalian craniums, has also conferred that the skull of the cheetah appears to have been forged. However, as of now, the skull is still not permitted for view by outside researchers, and little data is allowed to be released on the matter. Although it’s not a very popularly known hoax, it is among the worst kinds of fraudulent fossil, as it has received widespread global media attention but yet, is still unresolved.
3. Johann Beringer
This was previously one of the most well known cases of fossil fraud, since it was so blatant. In 1725, Beringer was a naturalist (the closest thing to a paleontologist at the time) on the faculty at the University of Wurzburg, and was well known for being arrogant and somewhat pushy. His colleagues – a Professor Roderick, in a nearby Dept, and Johann Eckhart, a librarian, decided to trick Beringer with a little fossil hoax. They had artisans carve intricate, realistic fossils of various reptiles, amphibians, insects, and invertebrates into real pieces of limestone — along with ancient Hebrew writings – and they planted them along a nearby mountain, for Dr. Beringer to discover. Beringer created instant media attention with the finds and wrote a book about the fossils and their possible religious meanings. Later, when the hoax was revealed, all three of the academics were discredited and forced to leave their posts. The original Beringer book, translated in 1963, can now be read in English, and the remaining “fossils” can be viewed at the University of Oxford. It’s funny but when I saw some of these fossils, they reminded me of our various CNC-produced trilobites for our plastic injection molded parts:
2. Archaeoraptor : “The Dinosaur-Bird Missing Link”
Archaeoraptor is the most relevant fraudulent fossil to me right now, since it concerns dinosaur-bird evolution, and that’s what “The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil” is all about. This is a case of a fossil that was found in 1999 in Xiasanjiazi, China; the find was published in National Geographic, which later turned out to be an elaborate hoax. The fossil, claiming to be the missing link between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds, turned out to be a partly real and partly fabricated fossil. However, even prior to publishing, there were doubts about whether or not it was real. At first glance it looks a bit like a German Archaeopteryx fossil – light brownish gray flat matrix, with a bird like fossil, and brown markings indicating where wings, feathers or other organic material may have been. But a team of scientists around the world worked together to debunk the idea that this fossil ever existed, and came up with a map of exactly how the fraudulent Archaeoraptor was forged. This intricate forgery points to the concern that the trade of fossils in developing countries with access to large areas of land and money, is a rising threat in the world of paleontology. Not to mention, fossil collectors who place a high value on authentic fossils. But even as recently as 2012, there have been newer and better “real” examples of theropod (Velociraptor-like) dinosaurs with feathers. However, so far, none of these are yet considered true precursors to modern birds. Details about the Archaeopter fraud can be found here: http://www.science20.com/between_death_and_data/5_greatest_palaeontology_hoaxes_all_time_3_archaeoraptor-79473
1. Piltdown Man
This is by far the most popular fossil hoax in history. It’s difficult to make a query of a group of people, asking something about fraudulent fossils without at least one person raising their hand and saying, “What about Piltdown Man?”
In 1912, Sussex England, the remains of an early human ancestor were found in a gravel pit and named Eanthropus dawsoni, after the man who discovered it – Charles Dawson. Dawson claimed to have spent 5 years collecting parts of the specimen in a gravel quarry, after first receiving a fragment from a worker. After revealing the skull to prominent scientists, including those at the Royal Geological Society of London, it turned out that there were a number of scientists who believed that this fossil was the “missing link” between apes and humans and just so happened to be in the UK, which was a major center for paleontological science at the time. It took several decades before geological research and fluorine chemistry tests (1949) determined that Piltdown was a hoax. However as early as the 1910’s, there were scientists in Europe who believed it was nothing more than a combination of fossilized ape and human parts put together. It turned out to be predominantly fragmented ape skull bones, along with several human molars. The identity of the forger was never found, but it was clear that it was either Dawson or someone close to him. The forgery was officially declared in 1953. Given the widespread promotion of the find as the “first Englishman” for decades, it has also been regarded as a key example of the problems in science and a symbol of Western arrogance.
So, why do people make fraudulent fossils?
Well, there are many incentives. For some people, who are under pressure to perform within the scientific community, it’s all about publish or perish. Sometimes, you need a discovery “or else” – and out of desperation, some scientists resort to unethical behavior. Sometimes, people, especially amateur enthusiasts, are looking for attention and want to create a hoax to gain attention. In some cases, reputable scientists have been duped because they have not ever experienced a hoax before, and are eager to promote a new discovery. In some cases, fossil thieves/poachers merely want a little extra money, so they “enhance” their fossils a bit without realizing the ramifications of their actions – that they might be fooling people who are in the real world of science. However, by far the biggest incentive to create “fraudulent fossils” is money. Fossil sales can be big business. As we have learned time and time again, in the news, you can make pretty big bucks with very large and popular fossils, as well as extremely rare and important fossils.
A number of years ago, a T-Rex named Sue was sold in the US to the Chicago Field Museum for $8.36M USD. Recently, in May 2012, a controversial Tyrannosaurus sold for $1,052,500 USD in New York City, despite the sale being blocked by a judge order. So, clearly the incentive for money is there for people who would be forgers of fossils. Here is additional information on fake fossils, for collectors: http://www.paleodirect.com/fakefossils1.htm
However, like anything else, where collection results in harm (endangered species artifacts, anything from rain forests, oceanic or archaeological/cultural relics, etc..), it is advised not to collect rare fossils as it not only hurts science, but may also hurt people, animals and the environment too.
- Barnas Monteith, Author, “The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil” Get your copy of the new Fraudulent Fossil book today:
Since this post, I have found another “fraudulent fossil” that really belongs in this list. Consider it #11 – http://tumblehomelearning.com/geologists-find-largest-dinosaur-eggs-in-the-world-another-fraudulent-fossil