While Calaveras is Spanish for “skulls,” one skull in particular stands out in the county’s history.
This was a fossil that ended up in the hands of William Jones, a physician in Murphys and an avid collector of natural artifacts, in 1866.
It wasn’t the skull itself that was of note – in appearance it was similar to many found before. It was the place in which the skull was said to be.
Jones was told that the skull was found among ancient gravels and 130 feet below the surface in James Mattison’s mineshaft on Bald Hill, just outside of Angels Camp. If the skull was deposited at the same time as the surrounding gravels, it would make it the oldest known human fossil in the New World, and between 2.6 million and 5.3 million years old.
Jones passed the skull on to J.D. Whitney, state geologist of California and professor of geology at Harvard University. Whitney had his own theories about the presence of ancient humans in North America, and quickly shared the discovery with the world.
While some scientists supported Whitney’s conclusions about the ancient origins of the skull, others rejected them as contrary to evolutionary theory. The skull was modern in appearance, meaning that humans would have had to remain unchanged by evolution over a period of millions of years for it to date from the Pliocene.
Shortly after the discovery was made public, rumors began to circulate that the skull had been taken from an American Indian burial ground and planted in the mine by local practical jokers hoping to fool Mattison, Jones or Whitney. Several residents came forward to tell of their involvement in the prank, but often gave contradictory details regarding who planted the skull, where it was found and how it made its way to Whitney.
Within a year of the discovery, Bret Harte penned a satirical poem about the incident called “To the Pliocene Skull, a Geological Address.”
In the poem, the skull speaks for itself, and the piece ends with the line, “Which my name is Bowers, and my crust was busted/Falling down a shaft, in Calaveras County/But I’d take it kindly if you’d send the pieces/Home to old Missouri!”
While the general public and the press tended to believe that the skull was planted as a hoax, the scientific community was split over its authenticity.
In 1882, physician W.O. Ayers published a paper in the American Naturalist in which he defended the ancient origins of the skull.
“In the minds of almost all, the existence of prehistoric man in California is associated mainly with the famous ‘Calaveras Skull,’” he wrote. “We shall find that if it had never come to light at all, the proofs that man existed when, or rather before, the auriferous gravel was deposited, are so complete that he who doubts them would as readily doubt that Napoleon Bonaparte died on the island of St. Helena.”
Ayers claimed that any artifacts found among buried ancient gravels must have been deposited at the same time, and cited several instances of evidence of human beings being found in the ancient gravels buried in and around Calaveras County.
“And the hundred more could be summoned were it worth the while,” he wrote. “For the instances in which the products of human workmanship have been washed out of the ‘gravel’ are altogether too numerous to record.”
Writing in the Journal of Geology in 1899, W.M. Blake claimed that the physical properties of the skull suggested that it was originally deposited in a cave in relatively recent times. He wrote that extensive placer mining in California explained evidence of human beings found deep in the Earth.
“In the gigantic placer mining operations of California, there is a concentration upon the bedrock of all heavy objects which may have been originally in the surface soil or any part of the banks of gravel between the soil and the bed of the ancient river,” he wrote. “In seasons of flood or of great accumulation of rushing water from showers or cloudbursts, objects lying on the surface, such as stone implements, pestles, mortars, metates, flint chips, etc., may be swept onwards in the gravel and sunk to the bedrock.”
In 1901, naturalist F.W. Putnam, a colleague of Whitney’s at Harvard who believed the skull dated from the Pliocene, made a visit to Calaveras County to attempt to learn about its origins.
The Calaveras Prospect newspaper, reflecting the general tone of the press, wrote up a derisive article about the visit titled, “That Calaveras Skull again – Scientists still investigating the old fraud.”
Following his investigation, Putnam wrote, “At this time, I am only prepared to state that after a careful sifting and cross-questioning in regard to the several stories told at Angels Camp, both pro and con, as to the finding of the skull, I am convinced that they are not worthy of consideration as evidence. It may be impossible ever to determine to the satisfaction of the archaeologist the place where the skull was actually found.”
Further complicating matters, accounts of those who claimed to have seen the Calaveras skull differed markedly in their descriptions of it, suggesting that more than one skull was involved in the controversy.
The skull described by several residents was black and soil-stained, while the one that Whitney studied was white and carbonate-encrusted.
When Putnam made his visit to the county, he showed residents a picture of the skull studied by Whitney. He was told by those claiming that they took part in the prank that it was definitely not the skull that had been planted.
While vigorous debate within the scientific community continued in the decades following the discovery of the skull, during the early 19th century, the first generation of professional American archaeologists largely rejected the antiquity of the Calaveras skull and other evidence for the existence of Pliocene man in North America.
In a report for the Department of Anthropology, University of California, from September 1902, G.J.M. E. d’Aquin wrote, “Having demonstrated the great age of the gravels and the untrustworthy nature of Whitney’s evidence, the possibility of any human remains being found in the auriferous gravels is so remote that the question of their occurrence hardly requires further extensive investigations.”
After a thorough study of 45 references to the Calaveras skull made in English, French and German journals from 1866 to 1948, archaeologist Robert Heizer concluded in 1962 that the skull was “one of the most notorious archaeological hoaxes perpetrated in the 19th century.”
In 1992, R.E. Taylor, Louis A. Payen and Peter J. Slota, Jr. published an article in American Antiquity called “The Age of the Calaveras Skull: Dating the ‘Piltdown Man’ of the New World.” In the study, the authors undertook a radiocarbon analysis of the skull studied by Whitney, which is located at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. They found that the famous skull was from the late Holocene age, and likely less than 1,000 years old.
Today, the Angels Camp Bypass (Highway 4) cuts right through the southern end of Bald Hill, although most motorists pass by unaware of its storied past.
Sources: “Historical Aspects of the Calaveras Skull Controversy” by Ralph W. Dexter; “The Age of the Calaveras Skull: Dating the ‘Piltdown Man’ of the New World” by R.E. Taylor, et al.; “The Ancient Man of Calaveras” by W.O. Ayers; “The Pliocene Skull of California and the Flint Implements of Table Mountain” by W.P. Blake.