Fossils are a record of an age now long gone. Most of us think of dinosaur bones that have turned to stone over the years, but the word “fossil” can also apply to other remains, like footprints or DNA preserved in amber. Scientists usually strive for intellectual honesty, but sometimes the lure of fame and funding leads people to create fossil hoaxes — here are some of the most famous and outrageous.
1. Maraapunisaurus fragillimus — hoax or not?
One of the most interesting cases was a massive vertebra (and possibly a femur) for a dinosaur that might never have really existed. A man named Oramel William Lucas discovered the fossils in Colorado, close to locations where other remains were also found. If the vertebra was real, it should have belonged to the largest dinosaur which ever existed. Unfortunately, the actual fossils were “lost” and never seen by anyone else, and all that remains is a hand-drawn illustration. Many paleontologists debated whether it had even been real, or if a dinosaur that large could have existed without collapsing under its own weight. Today it’s believed that original estimates of the size of the animal may have been wrong, and the fossil might have been real; unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure.
2. The Piluxy River Tracks
Fossilized footprints found near the Piluxy River in Texas seemed to show dinosaur and human footprints intermingled — suggesting that a kind of Flintstones-like era had allowed the two species to interact. Creationists and evolution supporters debated over the footprints and came to several erroneous conclusions; eventually, researchers decided that none of the footprints were human. It’s now believed that dinosaurs had also made the human-like prints with only a portion of their feet and the shape of the prints had been changed by erosion.
3. Nebraska Man was just a pig
A rancher in Nebraska named Harold Cook found a tooth in 1917, and paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn studied it and declared it to be from a new kind of ape — a claim many found unlikely, given that apes are native to Africa. Fieldwork in 1925 and 1925 uncovered more remains in the same area and eventually proved that the tooth was not from any ape at all, but from an extinct kind of pig. Osborn blamed his misidentification on the original tooth being in poor condition.
4. The Piltdown “Man”
Possibly the most well-known fraud, the Piltdown Man bone fragments were also supposed to have been a “missing link” humanoid. They were presented to the Natural History Museum in London by a man named Charles Dawson in 1912, and for about 40 years they were believed to be 500,000 years old. However, in 1953 it was conclusively determined to be a hoax — the bone fragments had come from a modern orangutan and a modern human with a small head and deliberately mixed together to resemble a functional skull.
The most modern major hoax happened in China. This was another “missing link” case, but this time the link was between ancient dinosaurs and modern birds. Farmers in poorer regions of China have found a way to make a fortune by digging up dinosaur bones, and inevitably this has led to more and more elaborate forgeries. This one managed to fool National Geographic in 1999. Eventually, the individual bones were painstakingly identified and it became clear that some were from a known species of an early bird, while others from a known species of dinosaur had been carefully mixed in to create a new-looking skeleton.