The Curious Case of the Ophir Mine Skull

The Forbidden Archaeologist

A few years ago, I received an email letter drawing my attention to the discovery, in the nineteenth century, of a human skull in a mine near Virginia City, Nevada, where prospectors had discovered the Comstock Lode, a vast deposit of silver ore. The mining activities in the Comstock Lode were documented by Dan DeQuille, the pen name of William Wright (1829–1898). From about 1859 to 1875, DeQuille lived in Virginia City. For much of the time he worked as a writer for a local newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. For a couple of years one of his assistants was Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). Later, with Twain’s encouragement, DeQuille (1877) wrote a book (History of the Big Bonanza) about the history of the mining of the Comstock Lode. “Bonanza” is a term used by nineteenth century miners for an ore deposit. In his book, DeQuille (1877, p. 505) stated: “In working out the first or upper bonanza [ore deposit] of the Ophir mine, there was brought to light a human skull of a very ancient and curious type. The skull was dug out where a drift [horizontal shaft] was being run in the ore body at a depth of about 300 feet below the surface. It was brought out and dumped with a carload of ore, not being observed by the miners. United States District Judge A. W. Baldwin, since killed by a railroad accident in California, happened to be present when the carload of ore was dumped. Seeing an object of peculiar shape roll toward his feet among the ore dumped from the car, the Judge picked it up and found it to be a human skull of a peculiar form and thickly crusted over with sulphuret of silver. He carried it into town and presented it to William Shepard, of the firm of Tinker & Shepard, who placed it in a cabinet of curiosities, where it still remains. The skull attracted no attention outside of Virginia City until 1874, when, mention being made of it in the newspapers, the Academy of Sciences, of San Francisco, sent for it for the purpose of making a critical examination of it.”

The skull did not include the facial bones or jaw, just the skullcap. At the direction of geologist Josiah D. Whitney, a cast was made of the skull. On February 2, 1874, Dr. James Blake, MD, exhibited the cast at a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences. Blake had obtained the cast from Whitney. A report of the meeting was published in 1875 (Blake, Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences. Series 1, vol. 5, p. 258). This report stated, “The skull had been brought up with some dirt from the 400-foot level; but it is probable that it had been carried down in dirt from a neighboring ravine, which, at an earlier period, had been used to stop [fill in] some of the former workings.”

The report also said about the skull: “But, independently of its history, the skull presents some features, which render it extremely interesting, from an ethnological point of view. The principal of these, were the presence of a large interparietal bone, extending almost to the occipital protuberance, the heavy superciliary ridges, the very low forehead, and great development of the posterior portion of the skull, the peculiar position of the socket for the articulation of the lower jaw, and the great development of the processes for the attachment of muscles. Unfortunately the whole of the palatal portion below the orbits and a large part of the base of the skull were missing; but what remained, the Doctor considered that it presented a form more removed from that of any existing race of human beings than that of any skull that had heretofore been found” (Blake 1875, p. 258).

Let me explain some of the terminology used in the quoted passage. An interparietal bone is not often found in human skulls. The top and rear part of the human skull are made of three large bones—the left and right parietal bones, which come up from the sides and join at the top, and the occipital bone, which forms the back of the skull. Normally the three bones join together, but in some cases an extra bone, the interparietal bone, forms between the parietals and the occipital. Because this bone was first noticed in skulls from mummies from the Inca civilization, it is sometimes called the inca bone. In fact, at the meeting of the California Academy of Sciences, Blake showed some Peruvian skulls with interparietal bones. The superciliary ridges are the brow ridges. Because of these features and the others listed above, Blake thought the skull did not belong to the modern human type.

DeQuille (1877, p. 506) stated, “Professor Whitney was very anxious to be allowed to send the skull to the Atlantic states and Europe, but the owners would not part with it for that purpose. The plaster cast taken was sent to Dr. J. Wyman, of Cambridge.” Wyman worked at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At least one more cast of the Ophir skull was made. In 1960, archaeologist Robert F. Heizer found a cast of the Ophir skull in the collection of the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie at the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris, France, where it is catalogued as specimen 5260 (Reichlen and Heizer 1966, p. 98). The cast was acquired by the French ethnographer Alphonse Pinart (1852–1911), who had been present in San Francisco in 1874.

In 1966, archaeologist Paulette Reichlen and Heizer published a paper titled, “The Ophir Skull from Virginia City, Nevada” (Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey, No. 66. Notes on Western Nevada Archaeology and Ethnology, pp. 85–100). Reichlen and Heizer discussed some of the points made by Blake in his presentation to the California Academy of Sciences in 1874. Blake had suggested that the skull had been carried into the mine along with dirt brought from the surface for the purpose of filling in some of the old workings. Reichlen and Heizer (1966, p. 90) said, “Blake’s suggestion that the skull was inadvertently taken in to the Ophir Mine as an element of earth fill used to seal off old workings is possible though improbable.” I agree that Blake’s suggestion is improbable. It seems that the main reason Blake suggested the skull had come in from the surface was the great antiquity of the deposits in the mine. According to modern geologists (D. D. LaPointe and J. G. Price), in a report published in 2009 by the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology (Digging Deeper into the Comstock, p. 6), the Comstock Lode deposits are of Miocene age, being about 14 million years old. The surrounding host rock belongs to the Middle Miocene Alta Formation, which is between 15.2 and 15.8 million years old. Reichlen and Heizer (1966, p. 90) said, “The Ophir skull can probably be dismissed as an attempted hoax—a fraud which misfired.” But they produced no evidence about who was responsible for the hoax, how the hoax was carried out, or why it was carried out. It seems clear to me that the main reason Reichlen and Heizer suggested the skull was a fraud was that the alternative (that the skull was of Miocene antiquity) was to them unthinkable.

Reichlen and Heizer (1966, p. 92) also addressed Blake’s claim that the skull appeared to be more primitive than any living human populations: “We shall say, however, that we do not think the Ophir Mine skull cap must be considered as an abnormal one… An association of some ‘primitive’ with other quite normal characters is evident. Without knowing the antiquity of the Ophir skull, it is considered pointless to speculate further on the possible significance of its metrical characteristics.” As I have pointed out, some skulls of modern human population have features (such as low foreheads, large brow ridges) that are considered primitive. Furthermore, Reichlen and Heizer (1966, p. 93) determined that the cranial capacity of the Ophir Mine skull was 1,486 cubic centimeters, which is in the upper part of the modern human range.

In summary, the Ophir Mine skull does not display any features not found among modern human populations. It came from a Miocene stratum and was covered with a mineral deposit (sulphuret of silver) indicating it had been there a long time. Although there were unsupported suggestions that the skull had entered the Miocene formation either by accident or fraud, the most reasonable interpretation of the evidence is that the Ophir Mine skull is human and that it is at least 14 million years old. It is consistent with the many other cases of evidence for extreme human antiquity that I documented in my book Forbidden Archeology.


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. (Visit

By Michael A. Cremo •