Calaveras Skull

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The Calaveras skull is a human skull that was believed by many, in the later part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, to be evidence of Pliocene Man in North America. It was initially dated to the Pliocene yet after testing the date was found to be much younger. Years later, locals who were involved in creating the hoax helped begin to clear up some of the mystery and confusion that surrounded the skull. This, in conjunction with the help from scientists and researchers, determined that the Calaveras skull was a hoax.

The Calaveras Skull, from William Henry Holmes' preliminary debunking of it. [1]


The Calaveras Skull allegedly originated out of a mining camp in Calaveras County, CA. It was passed around for a time and ended up in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.The provenance of the Calaveras Skull however, is one of the aspects of the Calaveras skull that is debated and still not definitively known. There are a few main trails of ownership that seem to be the most widely accepted.

Timeline One

The first starts February 25, 1866 when workers for James Mattison removed a skull from a mining shaft at Angel's Camp in Bald Mountain, Calaveras County, CA. James Mattison then gave the skull to R. C. Scribner who was a merchant and agent for Wells, Fargo and Company at Angel’s Camp. Scribner then passed the skull on to William Jones, a physician at Murphy’s, who, upon receiving the skull, notified J D Whitney, the State Geologist of California and a Professor of geology at Harvard University. The skull was encrusted with sediment so Whitney cleaned the skull with the help of Jefferies Wyman a comparative anatomist at Harvard. Whitney announced the discovery on July 16, 1866 at a meeting of the California Academy of Science [2]

Timeline Two

The second starts sometime in 1865 with E. H. Schaeffle from Murphy's, CA. In 1901 he wrote to Putnam who, at the time, was at Angel's Camp restudying the skull's origin. Schaeffle claimed that in 1865 there were a number of Indian skulls that were being found during a dig the company did at a spring in Salt Springs Valley. One of these skulls supposedly went to Dr. James Kelley. Kelley had the skull in office on the Cap Hanford Lumber Yard for a time. This skull was black from the black earth that it was dug from. The skull disappeared from Kelley's office and eventually resurfaced in the possession of R. C. Scribner. In this timeline Scribner stole the skull and sent it to William Jones with the story of James Mattison finding it at Bald Hill. Jones then held onto the skull along with others that were found while mining until J D Whitney took the skull from the rest. Whitney wanted to look in the shaft it was supposedly found in and do further research because he believed the story that Jones was told and that the skull was proof of early humankind in North America.

Pseudo-archaeological Narrative

J D Whitney and later F Ward Putnam believed that the skull was evidence of the earliest human fossil in North America. Whitney believed the skull to be that of a Pliocene age (add link) despite many locals involved in the mining operation were aware that the skull was a hoax and was a part of a prank. However the belief in the validity of the skull was shared by many in the scientific community and after Whitney's announcement July 16 1899 [3] fueled much scientific literature as well as media and religious-oriented publications. [4] There are still many who believe the story of the skull despite evidence that is a hoax.

When Putnam went back to re-research the origin of the skull it was uncovered that there may have been two different skulls involved in this hoax. there was one that was a skull that was black, having been dyed by the soil it was removed from, that Schaeffle claimed was from the Salt Springs Valley, however the skull that was studied at Harvard by Whitney and later tested by others was white and carbonate-encrusted [5] There was also a radiocarbon analysis using both conventional decay and accelerator mass spectrometry done on the skull that revealed the age to be less than 1000 years old.

Conservative Christians

There are some extremely conservative christians that use the Calaveras skull as evidence that mankind has existed for an extended period of time unchanged by evolution. [6]

Those in support and against the story of the Calaveras Skull

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Supporters of Skull story
Josiah Whitney believed that the skull had been found by a miner,James Mattison, and was evidence of Pliocene Man in North America [7]
Frederic Ward Putnam believed the skull was genuine and represented the oldest known record of humankind in America[8]
Dall examined the Calaveras skull story and believed that there were enough scientists who believed the information to be sufficient and saw no reason to doubt the origin[9]
Holmes(1899) at this time had reviewed the information that was in circulation within the scientific community on both the skull and other evidence for humankind in California and saw no reason to doubt the validity[10]
Merriam was sympathetic to Whitney and Putnam yet was still skeptic and wanted more proof through his own study on the gravel from the mine the skull was found in[11]
Wilson questioned the validity of the claim that the skull had been planted in the mine[12]
Conservative Christians used the story of the skull to support anti-evolutionary beliefs[13]

Against the Skull story
Harte ridiculed the find and believed it was a hoax
Most locals multiple stories of locals who claimed that the skull was a hoax
A San Francisco paper find out what paper published an editorial November 25,1869 that stated that they believed it was a hoax and that they had a source that informed them that the whole thing started as a prank on Professor Whitney
GF Becker thought that the skull was planted in the mine but believed that the skull was fossilized evidence of early humankind in California[14]
Evening Star reported on December 3,1898 that an anonymous informant told a reporter that the skull came from Salt Springs about 12 miles from Angel's Camp and was placed in the mine as a prank on Mattison and Whitney[15]
Blake believed that the skull showed similarities to and likely was from an Indian burial instead of an ancient fossil[16]
Holmes(1901) at this time he re-evaluated the known evidence for human remains in auriferous gravels in California and determined that the skull did not share the characteristics, conditions or associations[17]
Schaeffle wrote to putnam explaining that he was involved in the hoax and that the skull that was originally planted in the mine was blackened by the dirt that it came from instead of stained red, white, or blue like what was actually within the mine shaft[18]
The Calaveras Prospect published an article on September 14, 1901 about Putnam coming to re-investigate the mine that was titled "That Calaveras Skull Again-Scientists Still Investigating the Old Fraud."[19]
GJME d’Aquin believed that the skull presented features that did not align with the rest of the known evidence for early humankind


Archaeological Perspective

Today it is known that the Calaveras Skull was a hoax that was a part of the scientific narrative for too long. Even looking at the two afore mentioned timelines there are a number of inconsistencies that should have made more archaeologists skeptical.

One of the main issues with the storyline of the skull was that no experts were able to examine it in situ. Within archaeology it is the goal of the scientists to examine artifacts within the context that they are found and compile data from the site. The context that the artifact is found in is just as, if not more, important than the artifact found. Within all of the storylines of the Calaveras Skull there was never a change for those studying the skull to examine it in exactly the way it was uncovered. The skull was removed from the site and passed through a number of owners before anyone began investigating the piece.

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The skull had been found 130 ft below surface and beneath a stratum of lava. Chemical analysis proved that the skull was fossilized. Gravel in the shaft (lava gravel) stained red blue and white not black


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  1. 1899 Preliminary Revision of the Evidence Relating to Auriferous Gravel Man in California, First paper. American Anthropologist 1:107-121.
  2. Whitney, J. D. 1867 Notice of a Human Skull Recently Taken From a Shaft Near Angels, Calaveras County. Proceed. Acad. Sci. 3:277-278. Also, Amer. Jour. Sci. 43:265-267. 1880 The Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California. Memoirs Mus. Comp. Zool. at Harvard Coll. Mem. 6(No. 1):267-273.
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  5. dexter 1986:367-368
  6. citation for Walt Brown's 2008 In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood.
  7. Historical aspects of Calaveras Skull Controversy
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  21. Dexter, Ralph W. “Historical Aspects of the Calaveras Skull Controversy.” American Antiquity, vol. 51, no. 2, 1986, pp. 365–369. JSTOR, JSTOR,