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Calaveras skull

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Calaveras skull is a famous fossil cranium, reported by Professor J.D. Whitney as found (1886) in the undisturbed auriferous gravels of Calaveras county, California. The discovery at once raised the still discussed question of "tertiary man" in the New World. Doubt has been thrown on the genuineness of the find, as the age of the gravels is disputed and the skull is of a type corresponding exactly with that of the present Indian inhabitants of the district. Whitney assigns the fossil to late Tertiary (Pliocene) times, and concludes that "man existed in California previous to the cessation of volcanic activity in the Sierra Nevada, to the epoch of the greatest extension of the glaciers in that region and to the erosion of the present river cañons and valleys, at a time when the animal and vegetable creation differed entirely from what they now are...." The specimen is preserved in the Peabody museum, Cambridge, Mass.[1]

It was found embedded in gold bearing gravel by a miner, Mr. Mattison, who took it to Dr. William Jones, who sent a letter to the state geological survey about the find. The geological survey asked to see it, and Dr. J. D. Whitney, a famous geologist for whom Mount Whitney is named, examined it a few days after it arrived at the survey (June 29, 1866). It soon became a major point of debate because its presence would imply that modern man was present in California millions of years before man was thought to evolve. Eventually, it was presumed to be a skull of a modern indian, found in some cave and planted to be found by Mr. Mattison.

Evidential Problems

It should be noted that the skull as evidence is problematic enough that some ministries identify it as an argument creationists should not use. According to Creation Ministries International:

These are not sound examples—the Castenedolo skeletal material shows evidence of being an intrusive burial, i.e. a recent burial into older strata, since all the fossils apart from the human ones had time to be impregnated with salt. The Calaveras skull was probably a hoax planted into a mine by miners.[2]

However it should not be ignored since at the very least it calls for more research. The men who found the skull were noted to be honest men, and Whitney could find no evidence of falsehood on their part. Later, some people may have put a cave skull in the mine as a joke on Mattison, and that skull would have been a cave skull. The original skull was truly a fossil, in fact it was so completely fossilized that only a trace amount of organic matter remains. The Carbon-14 dating on the skull was performed on fragments of human bone associated with the skull but not on the skull itself. The Carbon-14 dating gave an age of only 2,100 years or less. The skull was found embedded in gold bearing gravels, which encrusted it and filled its cavities. This does not match with it being a cave skull.

Whitney was a very respected geologist and apparently an evolutionist who wrote a book in 1880, "The auriferous gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California". In the book he documents human remains and artifacts found in the gold bearing gravels, and reasons that man must have been present there before the end of volcanism in the area. The large number of artifacts found by miners in the gravels was a supporting evidence for the reasonableness of finding a fossilized skull there. Whitney himself helped remove skulls found in caves and would have been familiar with their appearance, but believes the Calaveras skull was not a transplanted cave skull, but a skull found in its place of burial.

Since the gravels are from the pliocene epoch, normally dated 1.8 million years ago to 5.3 million years ago, the skull poses a problem. Either a hoax or a mistake was perpetrated (note the recent carbon dating), or the gravels should be dated much more recently, or there is evidence that humans were present when the gravels were washed to their present position (note the embedded gravels imply the skull was already bone without flesh when the gravels filled it, perhaps washed from its burial site). The number of human artifacts is also suggestive. It would seem that even those who believe it to be a hoax, could doubt enough to do some more checking of the area with newer technologies and dating techniques.


  1. Calaveras skull 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. Arguments we think creationists should NOT use Creation Ministries International, Accessed August 24, 2010.