In Part 2 of our exclusive series we looked at the mid-19th-century's
movement of science making a push to take over, and how the debate
did not end, instead it only made it more contentious than ever.
In Europe, the new science of paleoanthropology had uncovered
spectacular finds, but in America, it was paralyzed by infighting.
In 1903, the new head of the physical anthropology department at
the National Museum (now the Smithsonian), Ale Hrdlicka, and
like-minded colleagues, were determined to end the disputations
and promote professionalism and respectability.
By founding the first journal and first professional association
of physical anthropology in the early 1900s, Hrdlicka became the
undisputed authority in that field. By insisting that the form of
evidence suitable for answering the question of American origins
only lay in physical anthropology, he cut out any other form of
scientific evidence, for example linguistics, as most linguists
were clearly at odds with his theory at that time. With Hrdlicka
at the head of the physical anthropology department at the National
Museum, William Henry Holmes as curator of anthropology at the National
Museum, and W.J. McGee at the helm of the Bureau of Ethnology, the
top government positions in anthropology were now filled with ardent
critics of the antiquity of humans in America.
Hrdlicka and his colleagues then proceeded to debunk every known
potentially ancient site in America and South America. His zeal
was so great, as George W. Stocking wryly notes in The Ethnographer's
Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology, that "he
succeeded in exiling early man from the hemisphereso successfully
that until 1930 it was almost heretical to claim an antiquity of
greater than two or three thousand years."
As the eminent archaeologist and director of the Bureau of Ethnology,
Frank H.H. Roberts, who coined the term Paleoindian, wrote in 1940.
The upshot was that the question of early man in America became
virtually taboo, and no anthropologist, or for that matter geologist
or paleontologist, desirous of a successful career would tempt the
fate of ostracism by intimating that he had discovered indications
of a respectable antiquity for the Indian.
It has been argued that Hrdlicka's heavy handed tactics at least
cleaned up the mess that was American paleoanthropology, and there
certainly is much truth to that. Gone were the amateurs and dilettantes,
gone were the hoaxsters and forgers, gone were the acrimonious pitched
battles. Gone also was any other theory of American Indian origins
but the Bering Strait Theory. As Roberts pointed out, the cleaning
came with a heavy price.
The critics unquestionably did valuable service in exposing
the fallacy of many claims, but eventually they were swept away
by the ardor of their own crusade and definitely retarded the progress
of investigations by their dogmatic denial of the possibility of
traces of occupation other than those left by recent Indians. Augmenting
this was a categorical refusal to consider new evidence as it came
Not simply retard investigations, Hrdlicka sent American paleoanthropology
into the Dark Ages.
Science Goes Backwards
In 1949, when Kenneth Oakley of the British Museum
(Natural History) used his new fluorine test to finally expose the
Piltdown Man, a celebrated hoax in England in which a human skull
was fitted with an ape's jaw and then "discovered" in 1912 and promoted
as an evolutionary "missing link," he was shocked to discover shortly
afterwards that he had not invented the technique. Thomas Wilson,
curator of prehistoric archeology at the National Museum in Washington,
D.C., had used it as early as 1892. In 1895 Wilson used the fluorine
test to examine the antiquity of one of the most intriguing, and
sensational, finds of the 19th-century.
During excavations near Natchez, Mississippi between 1837 and
1844, Montroville Wilson Dickeson, a Philadelphia physician and
a pioneer in archeology, uncovered a cache of extinct animals including
mastodons, horses, bisons, and ground sloths (megalonyx and mylodon).
In the presentation of his finds before the Academy of Natural Sciences
at Philadelphia in 1846, he shocked his audience when he told them
he had found a human pelvis alongside the bones of the extinct animals.
That this bone is in the fossil state is clearly manifest from
its physical characters, in which it accords in every aspect of
color, density, etc. with those of the megalonyx and other assorted
bones. That it could not have drifted into the position it was found
is manifest from several facts
that the human bone was found
at least 2 feet below three associated skeletons of the megalonyx.
At that time it was not clear what to make of Dickeson's find,
since scientific notions of the antiquity of man or animals were
still in development. Dickeson was arguably the most famous archaeologist
in America, had discovered troves of dinosaur bones as well as investigated
the mysterious Indian mounds, and so his word was not to be taken
lightly. The famous British geologist Charles Lyell examined the
site and pelvis, and although he did not dispute it, he had his
doubts. In time the bones were stored at the Academy's museum in
Philadelphia, but they were not forgotten and remained a continual
subject of discussion.
Thomas Wilson, a Civil War cavalry officer who rose to the rank
of colonel, had worked for the State Department, where in the course
of his travels he had come to know many of the leading anthropologists
in Europe. He joined the National Museum in 1889 and, aloof from
the bitter disputes then raging among paleoanthropologists, had
an open mind about American Indian antiquity. Wilson was aware that
Josiah Whitney had done a fluorine test on the Calaveras skull as
far back as 1868 (although Whitney did not grasp its significance)
and that the test had been in use by mining companies in Europe.
Wilson first experimented on the Calaveras Skull, which he compared
to the teeth of an extinct rhino and found a good match, but that
was not conclusive because local conditions can affect the absorption
rate of fluorine and the two had not been found together.
It was better to try this test on the Natchez Pelvis, for the
fluorine test cannot give a date, but it can be used to compare
two fossils to each other. Since the bones of a ground sloth were
found right next to that of the pelvis, if they were the same age,
they should have the same concentrations of fluorine. Moreover,
since fluorine is absorbed into the fossils over time, the older
the fossil, the higher the fluorine content, and so they should
both have high levels of fluorine.
Wilson found exactly that. Both the ground sloth and the Natchez
pelvis had similar fluorine contents that were much, much higher
than modern bones. He concluded in his report that "the bones under
the present consideration, the man and the mylodon are substantially
of the same antiquity" and "this, therefore bears out the contention
of the value of this test." As he wrote to one of his associates
with deserved satisfaction:
I consider this to be a valuable discovery, and one that may
afford large opportunities for determining the antiquity of man
in America, thereby aiding to settle some of those disputed questions
about which the dogmatism of certain scientists has had such a free
Unfortunately for Wilsonand for the science of paleoanthropologyshortly
after his great discovery the leading dogmatist of the day, William
Henry Holmes, the ardent debunker of Indian antiquity, was named
the curator of anthropology at the National Museum and became Wilson's
boss. The significance of the test was discounted and after Wilson
died in 1902, the test was forgotten. In 1907, when Hrdlicka examined
the Natchez Pelvis only to dismiss it, he did not bother to bring
up Wilson's fluoride test.
After Hrdlicka's death, the famed forensic anthropologist and
Hrdlicka's successor at the National Museum, T. Dale Stewart, found
in Hrdlicka's files the report by Wilson on the Natchez Pelvis.
Stewart lamented the lost opportunity in a letter to Science in
1951, "for 55 years anthropology has been deprived of an important
objective argument in favor of the antiquity of man in America."
A Legacy of Dogma
As David J. Meltzer summed it up in his important discussion
of the fluorine test, "A Question of Relevance," in the book, Tracing
Archeology's Past, "Hrdlicka depended far more on morphological
evidence than on analytical tests, geological evidence, or context
to determine the antiquity of human remains." While numerous scientific
tools were being developed to study the world, Hrdlicka would have
none of it, indeed, he stifled their use. A tribute written by the
anthropologist Ashley Montagu could not help but condemn him.
In many respects Hrdlicka's methodology belonged to the nineteenth
rather than to the twentieth century.
As editor of the American
Journal of Physical Anthropology he played an important part in
discouraging the use of advanced statistical methods in papers submitted
to the journal. Hrdlicka's knowledge of genetics was also severely
limited, so that he failed to grasp the capital importance of genetic
science for the future development of physical anthropology.
Other lost opportunities included a host of human fossils found
in Argentina in the 1870s, many in association with extinct animals,
that Hrdlicka summarily dismissed. Hrdlicka skewered their discoverer,
Florentino Ameghinowho admittedly had fanciful ideas about
his discoveries, but was fortunately dead by the time Hrdlicka punctured
themwriting that the Argentine naturalist "could scarcely
be regarded as a well-trained and experienced geologist." Be that
as it may, in 2011 the Argentine archaeologist Gustavo G. Politis
radiocarbon dated some of Ameghino's discoveries, finding a number
of them to be ancient and one, an Arroyo de Frías skeleton,
to be more than 12,000 years old, among the oldest in the hemisphere.
To find absolute, indisputable proof of ancient man was almost
impossible, and even if the impossible had been found, that was
not enough. As Hrdlicka wrote in 1912:
The significance of the association of fossil animal bones with
human bones, even in the cases in which the former shows effects
of man's activity, is entirely problematic. The enumeration by the
paleontologists in this and other cases, of long lists of names
of extinct animals found with or near the human bones, or in the
vicinity, or in the same strata, is impressive, but alone counts
for little as evidence of the age of the remains of man found in
such a relation.
So despite the host of sites in which humans (or human tools)
and ancient extinct animals had been found together, this was not
proof. Hrdlicka had set up the Bering Strait Theory and the modernity
of Indians as the established dogma, not on the basis of the evidencethe
evidence had been clearly pointing the other way for over a half
a centurybut on the basis of his own beliefs. He then required
almost impossible conditions for those beliefs to be challenged.
The pattern of requiring indisputable scientific evidence to overturn
pseudoscientific mythology would be one of his unfortunate but enduring
The only way Hrdlicka was going to believe in an American antiquity
was if a Paleoindian came up and speared him in the chest. And in
a certain respect, that is exactly what happened.
Strait Theory, Part 4: The Indisputable Facts in the Artifacts