Tag Archives: scientific hoaxes

I’m Sick (but Here’s Some Settled Science!)

Image result for nebraska man

Behold Nebraska Man in all his glory! Formal scientific name, Hesperopithecus haroldcookii.

Yes, I’m sick. Allergy attack, meaning two to three days of hell. I won’t make it to the store today, or even try to write a Newwithviews column. I feel horrible.

But at least I’m still here, if only just barely–which is more than can be said for Nebraska Man.

Harold Cook found a fossil tooth in 1917–just a few years after (heh-heh) Piltdown Man was discovered in England–held on to it for a while, then passed it on to Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History. In 1922 Osborn announced that the tooth had belonged to a manlike ape. Given Osborn’s lofty reputation in the scientific world, a star was born: Hesperopithecus, “Western ape,” on its way to becoming human.

Actually it was on its way to the junkyard. The tooth turned out to belong to a fossil pig. In fairness to Osborn, he consulted with several leading scientists before making the announcement, and they all concurred with it. And he did not like the illustration (shown above), deeming it a pure figment of the artist’s imagination.

Nebraska Man didn’t stay settled for long. In 1927 Osborn retracted his findings and that was all she wrote for Hesperopithecus: just five years in the limelight, and then out. He coulda been a contender–if only they hadn’t found the rest of the fossilized pig (all right, it was an extinct peccary–and I do know the difference).

Across the Atlantic, Piltdown Man–which was a deliberate hoax that fooled Britain’s whole scientific establishment–hung in there for 50 years. They really hated to give it up. Osborn at least threw in the towel without making a fuss.

We credit Osborn with an honest mistake. But I shudder to think how the story would have played out if it had happened today. Jail for persons guilty of Nebraska Man Denial? Neil DeGrasse Tyson writing off all the doubters as backward religious fanatics? Nebraska Man action figures?

I’m thankful it was a hundred years ago.


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