Nebraska Man or a Pig’s Tooth?
In 1917, Nebraska geologist and rancher Harold Cook found a fossilized tooth of a kind he had not seen before. He hung on to the specimen for five years before sending it to paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, long time President of the American Museum of Natural History.
After examination, Osborn wrote to Cook “The instant your package arrived, I sat down with the tooth, in my window, and I said to myself: ‘It looks one hundred percent anthropoid. I then took the tooth into [paleontologist] Doctor [William] Matthew’s room and we have been comparing it with all the books, all the casts and all the drawings, with the conclusion that it is the last right upper molar tooth of some higher Primate, but distinct from anything hitherto described.”
Osborn named the animal it came from Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. Colleagues of Osborn’s agreed that Cook had discovered North America’s first anthropoid ape. It was believed to come from the Pliocene Epoch, about 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago.
The news that ape-like creatures had lived on the North American continent caused quite a stir in the scientific community.
In May 1922, Science magazine wrote “We have been eagerly anticipating some discovery of this kind, but were not prepared for such convincing evidence of the close faunal relationship between eastern Asia and western North America as is revealed by this diminutive specimen.”
Osborn had casts of the tooth made and sent to experts around the world. The British anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith agreed that a groundbreaking finding had occurred. He collaborated with an artist in creating an imagined illustration of what the creature might look like. Which was a bit of a stretch as they only had a single tooth to work from.
When they saw the illustration, Osborn and colleagues were somewhat scornful. They are quoted in The New York Times as saying “such a drawing or ‘reconstruction’ would doubtless be only a figment of the imagination of no scientific value, and undoubtedly inaccurate.”
“Undoubtedly inaccurate” turns out to be an apt description of the entire Nebraska Man story.
During the summers of 1925 and 1926, researchers went back to the site where Cook had found the tooth. The digs uncovered more skeletal remains, but they didn’t look very ape-like. That’s because they came from a pig-like animal; more accurately, an extinct species of peccary known as Prosthennops serus.
Oops. A retraction was published in Science in late 1927. The offending parties had kept the dark secret about the real origin of the tooth from the general public for more than two years.
In France, the paleoanthropologist Marcellin Boule saw the issue as a warning for members of his profession: “What bad luck for a fossil called on to play a major role in the history of prehumanity, but also what a lesson for paleontologists with too vivid an imagination.”
Others saw the Nebraska Man story as a deliberately malicious hoax.
Species of Peccary that Did not Go Extinct
Creation or Evolution?
Nebraska Man burst onto the scene during the vigorous debate about whether humans were a perfect creation of God or had evolved slowly along with great apes from a common ancestor.
This pitted Osborn against the chief defender of creationism, three-time Democratic nominee for president William Jennings Bryan, whose home state, coincidentally, was Nebraska.
Osborn fired the opening salvo in The New York Times in March 1922: “If Mr. Bryan, with open heart and mind, would drop all his books and all the disputations among the doctors and study first-hand the simple archives of Nature, all his doubts would disappear; he would not lose his religion; he would become an evolutionist.”
He even suggested sarcastically that the ape man should be called Bryopithecus “after the most distinguished Primate which the State of Nebraska has thus far produced.”
Later, Bryan wrote that “Professor Osborn is so biased in favor of a brute ancestry … that he exultantly accepts as proof the most absurd stories. Each new exhibit - no matter how largely the product of an inflamed imagination - lifts him to a new altitude of exultation, and each one in itself furnishes him sufficient foundation for unchangeable convictions … His latest ‘newly discovered evidence’ is a long lost witness captured in Nebraska.”
The Scopes Trial
Nebraska Man seemed to side with the evolution explanation and the creationists believed then, and still believe today, that its “discovery” was an attempt to influence the debate.
The Scopes Trial of July 1925 was looming large, so the conspiracy theory is that Nebraska Man was enlisted to sway public opinion in favour of Darwin and evolution.
Andrew Sibley (Journal of Creation) notes that Osborn was “a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” which organization was challenging the ban on teaching evolution in some schools.
Sibley believes that Osborn was guilty of deliberate deception.
William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution of John Scopes for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school, this being a breach of the Butler Act. Osborn was on the list of experts to testify for the defence, but he never spoke.
It seems that the field work being done at the site where the tooth was found was beginning to uncover evidence that Nebraska Man was looking more like Nebraska Pig.
John Scopes was found guilty and given a fine of $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned Scopes’s conviction while upholding the constitutionality of the Butler Act. William Jennings Bryan died the week after the trial, which resolved nothing. Some U.S. school jurisdictions still forbid the teaching of evolution.
Henry Osborn was a little uncomfortable with evolution. He believed in a doctrine called orthogenetics, which stated humans evolved under the direction of some sort of divine hand. Genetic mutations did not occur randomly and accidentally, they were guided by a mysterious force to a pre-ordained destination.
John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New York, was a leading figure in the opposition to teaching evolution. He wrote to Henry Osborn in 1924 to say he was “entirely friendly in my feeling toward the museum. The sole exception to this attitude in my mind is your so-called ‘Hall of the Age of Man.’ Frankly, I, for one, think that you ought to label that ‘Our Humorous Department’.”
- “Hesperopithecus, the First Anthropoid Primate Found in America.” Science, May 5, 1922.
- “The Role of ‘Nebraska Man’ in the Creation-Evolution Debate.” John Wolf and James S. Mellett, Creation Evolution Journal, Summer 1985.
- “The ‘Million-Dollar Pig’s-Tooth Mystery.” Brian Switek, Science Blogs, May 27, 2009.
- “A Fresh Look at Nebraska Man.” Andrew Sibley, Journal of Creation, August 2008.