Calico, California and the Early Man Dispute

The Forbidden Archaeologist

Travelers driving through the Mojave Desert along Interstate 15, the main highway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, may notice, near the Minneola Road exit, a sign pointing the way to the Calico Early Man Site, which can be reached after a couple of miles on an unpaved road. Compared to the Pyramids of Egypt, it does not seem like a very impressive site, but here Louis Leakey, one of the most prominent archaeologists of the twentieth century, made some discoveries that radically challenged conventional ideas about the peopling of the Americas.

For a long time, most archaeologists have believed that humans first entered North America fairly recently. In the beginning of the twentieth century, they thought the first entry was about five thousand years ago. By the middle of the twentieth century, they thought it was about ten thousand years ago. Today they think the first humans entered less than twenty-five thousand years ago, with many favoring fifteen thousand years ago.

As early as 1929 and 1930, when most scientists believed humans entered North America less than five thousand years ago, Louis Leakey, then a teaching assistant, was telling his archaeology students at Cambridge University in England that humans entered North America fifteen thousand or more years ago. Leakey later recalled, “I shall never forget when Aleš Hrdlička, that great man from the Smithsonian Institution, happened to be at Cambridge, and he was told by my professor (I was then only a student supervisor) that Dr. Leakey was telling students that man must have been in America 15,000 or more years ago. He burst into my room—he didn’t even wait to shake hands—and said, ‘Leakey, what’s this I hear! Are you preaching heresy?’” (Quarterly of the San Bernardino County Museum, 1979, vol. 26, no. 4, p. 91) Leakey continued to harbor his heretical ideas.

In 1958, when Louis Leakey was in London, he met a visiting American archaeologist, Ruth “Dee” Simpson, who had collected some artifacts from the surface at Calico. They seemed like they could be quite old, but because they were surface finds, they could not be easily dated. For dating purposes, it is best if artifacts are found in a formation of known age. Leakey told Dee Simpson that if she kept on looking she would eventually find some of the artifacts buried in the Calico deposits. “And when you do,” Leakey said, “let me know, and we will get money, and we’ll have an excavation in America” (R. L. Kaldenberg, Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology 1996, vol. 9, p. 82).

And that is what happened. Simpson did find some artifacts in situ, and during Leakey’s visit to the United States in 1963, she invited him to Calico. Leakey liked what he saw. He obtained funding from the National Geographic Society and several other big foundations, and from 1964 to 1970, he helped Dee Simpson direct excavations at Calico. It was Leakey’s only excavation in the Americas.

Thousands of stone tools were discovered at Calico, in deposits Leakey thought were over 50,000 years old. In 2013, Pleistocene Coalition News (vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 12-13) published a transcript of a lecture Louis Leakey gave at a conference about the Calico excavations in 1970.  Leakey said (p. 12), “I have consistently refused to say more about Calico than that it is over 50 thousand [years old]. And I have consistently warned the crew that it may be a great deal more. But the safe thing to say is that it is certainly over 50—beyond the range of carbon dating. I know there are those who believe it is so old that it couldn’t contain artifacts; but I don’t believe that because the artifacts are there! But a great age should not disturb or should not interfere with the interpretation of facts.” Leakey was right about the age of the site. It is far greater than 50,000 years. According to a report published in California Geology (1983, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 75–82), the deposits in which the artifacts were found were dated using the uranium-thorium method, which gave an age of over 200,000 years. The dating was done by Jim Bischoff, a geochemist with the United States Geological Survey, on a calcite coating that had accumulated on a stone tool found 17 feet deep in one of the excavations at Calico. The report, by Bischoff and his coworkers, was originally published in Geology (1981, vol. 9, pp. 576-582). In a letter to geologist Virginia Steen-McIntyre, dated July 22, 2011, Bischoff revealed that he had recently redated the sample, using the latest techniques, and got an age of 205,000 years (Pleistocene Coalition News 2011, vol. 3, no. 5, p. 7). Calico is thus similar in age to another controversial North America site—the Hueyatlaco site in Mexico, where stone tools were found in deposits at least 250,000 years old.

The main response from scientists who supported a recent peopling of the Americas was to claim that the Calico artifacts were “naturefacts,” i.e., pieces of naturally broken stone that superficially resembled stone tools. But Phillip Tobias, a prominent paleoanthropologist, said, in an article published in Quarterly of the San Bernardino County Museum Association (1979, vol. 26, no. 4, p. 97), “When Dr. Leakey first showed me a small collection of pieces from Calico… I was at once convinced that some, though not all, of the small sample showed unequivocal signs of human work.” But most mainstream scientists were convinced Louis Leakey was deluded and that none of the thousands of specimens collected at Calico were real artifacts. Leakey’s biographer, Sonia Cole wrote in Leakey’s Luck: The Life of Louis Leakey (1975, p. 351): “For many colleagues who felt admiration and affection for Louis and his family, the Calico years were an embarrassment and a sadness.” Leakey’s wife, Mary, wrote in her autobiography Disclosing the Past (1984, pp. 142-144) that his involvement with Calico was “catastrophic to his professional career and was largely responsible for the parting of our ways.”

Louis Leakey continued his involvement with the Calico project until his death in 1972. Excavations directed by Simpson continued until her death in 2000. Critics continued to insist that the Calico artifacts were pieces of rock that had been rolled around in ancient mudflows, causing them to be flaked so as to resemble real stone tools. In reply, Simpson and her coworkers, in a paper published in the book New Evidence for the Pleistocene Peopling of the Americas (1986, p. 96), stated: “Natural forces in a mudflow would be expected to give mainly bidirectional random damage to flake edges. It would be difficult for nature to produce many specimens resembling man-made unifacial tools, with completely unidirectional edge retouch done in a uniform, directed manner. The Calico site has yielded many completely unifacial stone tools with uniform edge retouch. These include end scrapers, side scrapers, and gravers.” They concluded (p. 104): “The data base for very early man in the New World is growing rapidly and can no longer simply be ignored, because it does not fit current models of prehistory in the New World.”

In the early 1990s, while researching my book, Forbidden Archeology, I met Dee Simpson at the San Bernardino County Museum and visited the Calico site. After Simpson’s death, her coworkers and volunteer assistants, headed by Calico site director, archaeologist Fred Budinger, Jr., continued work at Calico. However, in 2008, Budinger was deposed from his position and replaced as director by Adella “Dee” Schroth. In an article published in Pleistocene Coalition News (vol. 4, no. 3, May-June, 2012, p. 2), Budinger stated: “Dr. Schroth is not a believer in ‘Early Man in America.’ In the last couple of years, she and her crew of volunteers have eliminated 30–40 percent of the more than 60,000 Calico artifacts. Note that the eliminated pieces had already been accepted and cataloged as bona fide artifacts in a federally recognized curation facility [the San Bernardino County Museum].” Budinger revealed that the main excavation pits had been shut down and that interpretative displays indicating an age of 200,000 years for the artifacts had been removed from the site. According to Budinger, the new management believes the site is not older than 30,000 years. Therefore the new management wants to officially change the name of the site from The Calico Early Man Site to The Calico Mountains Archaeological Site. This is a classic case of forbidden archaeology.

As archaeologist Chris Hardaker put it in his article in Pleistocene Coalition News (2010, vol. 2, no. 4, p. 10): “Simply on the strength of its inordinate age, a minimum 200,000 years, have the doors of inquiry been shut for forty years with little evidence of any will to open them. Right now, no professional wants to touch Calico. It is toxic, a career killer even to suggest in public the possibility that the specimens look like artifacts.”

Michael A. Cremo is the author, with Richard Thompson, of the underground classic Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of Human Race. He has also written Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory. (See

By Michael A. Cremo