The Calaveras Skull

The most notorious human fossil discovered in the nineteenth century Gold Rush mines of California was the Calave­ras skull. The state geologist of California, J. D. Whitney (The Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California 1880, pp. 267–273), described how it came into his possession. In February 1866, James Mattison, the principal own­er of the mine on Bald Hill, near Angels Creek, removed this skull from a compact auriferious (gold-bearing) gravel layer 130 feet below the surface. The gravel was near the bedrock, underneath several distinct layers of volcanic mate­rial. Volcanic eruptions began in this region during the Oligocene (25-38 million years ago), continued through the Miocene (5-25 million years ago), and ended in the Pliocene (2-5 million years ago), according to geologist W. B. Clark (California Geology, 1979, vol. 32, p. 147). It would thus seem likely that the gravel in which the skull was found was Pliocene or older, as Whitney believed. The skull was anatomically modern.

To have a human like us existing over 2 million years ago would be devastating to the currently dominant evolu­tionary theory of human origins. According to supporters of this theory, human beings like us first came into exis­tence about 150,000 years ago. In addition to the Calaveras skull, from the Pliocene, Whitney reported other discover­ies of human bones and artifacts in the gold mining region from older periods. For example, the artifacts from the gold mines at Table Mountain in Tuolumne County, California, were discovered in layers of rock dated by modern ge­ologists to the Early Eocene period, which means the artifacts are about 50 million years old.

After finding the Calaveras skull, Mattison kept it in his house for some time. Later he gave it to R. C. Scribner, who sent it to Dr.William Jones, who lived nearby. Jones forwarded it to the office of the State Geological Survey in San Francisco, where Whitney examined it. Whitney went to the site, where he personally questioned Mattison, who confirmed the details of the discovery.

On July 16, 1866, Whitney presented to the California Academy of Sciences a report on the Calaveras skull, affirm­ing that it was found in Pliocene strata. Supporters of the theory of evolution suggested that the skull was a fairly re­cent Indian skull, from a cave burial, that had been planted as a hoax in Mattison’s mine. And today this is the stan­dard explanation for the Calaveras skull.

However, there are several different hoax stories told by contemporaries of Whitney, which I have reviewed in my book Forbidden Archeology (Cremo and Thompson 1993, pp. 439-446). They cannot all be true, and if some of them are not true, perhaps all of them are not true. What these stories have in common is the idea that the skull did not come from the auriferous gravels in Mattison’s mine but came instead from a recent Indian burial cave. Accusations of hoaxing are a convenient way to dismiss a troublesome discovery.

There has even been a suggestion that the skull found by Mattison was not the skull that eventually wound up in the hands of Whitney (W. B. Dexter, American Antiquity, 1986, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 365-369). But this appears to be un­true. In 1883, Dr. A. S. Hudson interviewed Mattison and his wife. When shown a picture of the skull from Whitney’s book, Mrs. Mattison recognized the skull as the same one she had kept in her house after Mr. Mattison brought it home from the mine (W. H. Holmes, Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1901, p. 461).

Today, most scientists believe that the skull came from a recent Indian burial cave. Because the conditions of a skull found embedded in Pliocene auriferous gravels and a skull found in recent cave burials should be different, this opens up a chance for consideration of objective evidence.

Anthropologist W. H. Holmes (1901, p. 469) examined the Calaveras skull at the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and concluded that it “never came from the old gravels in the Mattison mine, and that it does not in any way represent a Tertiary race of men.” Dr. F. W. Putnam of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Natural His­tory said about the skull: “Had it been taken from the shaft there probably would have been some trace of gravel, such as is found in the beds through which the shaft was sunk, mixed with the materials taken from the skull . . . but no such gravel has been found in the several examinations which have been made of the matrix” (W. J. Sinclair, Universi­ty of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology, 1908, p. 129).

On the other hand, Holmes (1901, p. 467) reported: “Dr. D. H. Dall states that while in San Francisco in 1866, he compared the material attached to the skull with portions of the gravel from the mine and that they were alike in all essentials.” And W. O. Ayres’ writing in the American Naturalist (1882, vol. 25, no. 2, p. 853), stated: “I saw it and ex­amined it carefully at the time when it first reached Professor Whitney’s hands. It was not only incrusted with sand and gravel, but its cavities were crowded with the same material; and that material was of a peculiar sort, a sort which I had occasion to know thoroughly. It was the common ‘cement’ or ‘dirt’ of the miners; that known in books as the auriferous gravel.” Ayres was a member of the California Academy of Sciences.

In my opinion, this firsthand testimony by Dall and Ayres is more reliable than the later testimony of Holmes and Putnam. The testimony of Holmes is particularly suspect because he is on record as having opposed all the discover­ies of human bones and artifacts reported by Whitney because of his commitment to the theory of evolution. Holmes (1901, p. 464) stated about Whitney’s conclusions that humans had existed in the Pliocene and earlier: “Perhaps if Professor Whitney had fully appreciated the story of human evolution as it is understood today, he would have hesi­tated to announce the conclusions formulated, notwithstanding the imposing array of testimony with which he was confronted.” In other words, if the facts did not fit the theory of human evolution, the facts had to be set aside, and that is exactly what happened. Putnam’s testimony reported by Sinclair in 1908 is also suspect, because geologist George Becker said that Putnam had earlier told him that the skull came from the auriferous gravel. Becker reported (1891, p. 195), “I find that many good judges are fully persuaded of the authenticity of the Calaveras skull, and . . . F.W. Putnam and W. H. Dall have each assured me that this bone was found in place in the gravel beneath the lava.”

Whitney (1880, p. 271), in his original description of the fossil, observed that the Calaveras skull was highly fossi­lized, with chemical texts yielding no organic residues. This is consistent with extreme antiquity. But a radiocarbon date on a human foot bone (a metatarsal) that apparently came from the skull’s matrix yielded a radiocarbon age of about 1,260 years (Taylor et al, American Antiquity, 1992, vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 269-275). At first glance, this seems dam­aging to the claim that the skull is at least 2 million years old. However, the authors of the study admitted that be­cause of the small sample size they were unable to perform adequate pretreatment for the sample. For example they did not remove humic acid compounds, which contain recent carbon. The authors said, “We certainly acknowledge the possibility that non-in situ organics in the bone may not have been totally excluded by the pretreatment technol­ogies employed.” Thus the age obtained could be falsely recent. That the dated bone sample did not come from the skull itself is also problematic.

On January 26, 2003, geologist Sam Van Landingham sent me an email, saying: “If it might be possible to obtain for microscopical examination even a tiny cut from the original matrix (if any still remains) from the Calaveras skull, then the odds are good that it can be linked to one of the beds at the Table Mt. locality. If those beds happen to be be­low the ‘pipe clay & lava’ then a good case by indirect evidence can be made for [an] . . . upper Pliocene age.” Table Mountain is another Sierra Nevada site where human bones and artifacts were found in Tertiary auriferous gravel de­posits, as documented by Whitney.

A long time ago, Sir Arthur Keith (The Antiquity of Man, 1928, p. 471) wrote: “The story of the Calaveras skull . . . cannot be passed over. It is the ‘bogey’ which haunts the student of early man . . . taxing the powers of belief of every expert almost to the breaking point.” Unfortunately, it has been passed over. But maybe it is now time for a new look.

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

By Michael Cremo

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