How and when the Americas were originally peopled is one of the great archaeological puzzles. As Samuel Haven, author of Archaeology of the United States, commented in 1856, 'after the discovery of America, the minds of the learned and ingenious were much exercised to account for its habitation by men and animals'. As soon as Europeans first encountered other humans in the Americas, there were questions about who they were and where they had come from. To Spaniards of the sixteenth century the ready-made answer was that they were one of the lost tribes of Israel. In their wanderings these Israelites had accidentally found a northern land connection into the continent. Since then the problem of by whom, when and where the Americas were first peopled has indeed exercised the minds and preoccupied the professional lives of many scientists over many generations and still the picture is not entirely clear.
There have been several false starts in the hunt for remains of the first 'North Americans' that have been swept under the academic carpet of embarrassing mistakes. One of the most famous was the 'astounding discovery' in the early 1920s of 'Nebraska Man', as the find was nicknamed. Hailed around the world as a 'missing link', 'a prehistoric Columbus' of huge importance in human evolution, the fossil was officially blessed with the scientific name Hesperopithecus, meaning 'western ape'. Males and females were even reconstructed by the English anatomist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith and depicted in the Illustrated London News as naked, stick-wielding 'ape-humans' occupying a Nebraskan landscape filled with early horses and camels. All this was achieved on the basis of one fossil cheek tooth found in Pliocene deposits, which were, at the time, thought to be around a million or so years old.
Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, 1871-1937, Australian-born and trained anatomist and specialist on the brain and its evolution, professor in Cairo (1900), Manchester (1909) and London (1919), expert on mummification and one of those who thought 'Piltdown Man' genuine, knighted 1934.
The discovery gained extra prominence because of the ongoing row over the proselytisation of evolution in schools in the USA. The well-known American palaeontologist and evolutionist Professor Henry Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History joined the fray by welcoming the find and remarking that 'the Earth spoke to Bryan from his own state', adding that 'this little tooth speaks volumes ... evidence of man's descent from the apes'. The Bryan in question was an anti-evolutionist Nebraskan politician William Jennings Bryan. 'Nebraska Man' even featured in the notorious Scopes trial of 1925, when Tennessee teacher John Scopes was tried for breaking the state law against teaching Darwinian evolution. Hesperopithecus was introduced as part of the fossil evidence for the existence of prehistoric humans.
Surprisingly, considering the potential importance of the find, it was not until 1927 that the original site was re-excavated in the hope of finding further bones. To the surprise and delight of the investigators, they found a jaw and further
Henry Fairfield Osborn, 1857-1935, Princeton-trained American vertebrate palaeontologist, fossil hunter and evolutionist, professor of biology at Columbia (1891), United States Geological Survey (1900-24) and president of the American Museum of Natural History (1908-33). His 1910 textbook The Age of Mammals was highly influential.
skeletal remains, but their joy soon turned to dismay as they realised that they were all bones and teeth of an extinct Pliocene pig.
In defence of the scientists, it has to be said that a worn pig molar can look remarkably like a human one. However, the 1920s were a curious time in the investigation of human prehistory. Fossil evidence for any 'linkage' between the apes and humans was very scarce and a lot of scientists desperately wanted to be the first to find the so-called missing link. Normal critical judgement was often suspended when confronted with such finds and even crude forgeries such as the 1911 discovery 'Piltdown Man' in England was accepted by experts such as Sir Grafton Elliot Smith.
However, we now know that extinct human relatives (Homo erectus) did migrate out of Africa as long ago as late Pliocene times. Some of them even got as far as China and Java in southeast Asia, but not as far as the New World. If they had, the story of human evolution would have been even more complex and interesting than it already is.
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