Brodgar, Öetzi, and Piltdown Man

Archeologists found a big stone structure buried under a 43-century-old garbage dump in the Orkney Islands.

Öetzi, Europe’s frozen mummy, got his wardrobe from many different critters: why, we don’t know.

Piltdown Man’s in the news again, too. Looks like Dawson was the only culprit.

  1. Buried for Millennia: Big Stones and Unanswered Questions
  2. Öetzi’s Eclectic Wardrobe
  3. Piltdown Man: Dawson Acted Alone

Ersatz Science

(From “Indigenous races of the earth,” Josiah Clark Nott, George Robbins Gliddon (1857); and “The Evolution of Man,” Ernst Haeckel (1874): via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Nott, Gliddon & Haeckel: ‘Proofs’ that the 19th century’s upper crust were superior to the rest of us.)

One of these days I’ll probably harangue about Marcellin Boule’s notion of what Neanderthals looked like: hairy, gorilla-like, with opposable toes.

In fairness, Boule’s Neanderthal skeleton was the first one analyzed — the remains of an old man, crippled with arthritis. We’ve learned a lot since then.

The ‘caveman‘ in the top picture is František Kupka’s ‘Neanderthal’ reconstruction, from L’Illustration & Illustrated London News (1909). The I. L. N. was the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine: sort of like today’s Time or Newsweek.

My best guess is that Kupka’s picture is “extrapolation and invention” — mostly from Marcellin Boule’s Neanderthal reconstruction.

The other illustration, showing an “Irish Iberian” and two other folks in profile, made its way into Harper’s Weekly. It’s an example of why I don’t miss the ‘good old days:’

“The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races”
( H. Strickland Constable, via Wikimedia Commons; see “Disorientations: Spanish Colonialism in Africa and the Performance of Identity,” Susan Martin-Márquez (2014) p. 47)

The motives for bigotry dressed up as science seem clear, at least to me. Having ‘proof’ that looking like me makes people superior to folks who don’t could be a dandy excuse for despising them — that’s a hypothetical situation, by the way.1

Bigotry disguised as science is out of fashion at the moment, happily. I think the more recent notion that there aren’t — or shouldn’t be — any measurable differences between folks whose ancestors are from different continents is just as silly, and that’s another topic.

Getting back to “Irish Iberians” and bias: If I thought intelligence depended on looking “Anglo-Teutonic,” I’d be in a pickle. From the side, my head’s somewhere between that English analog of das Herrenvolk and the “Irish Iberian.”

No surprises there. Before crossing the Atlantic, half my ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland; as far back as we’ve got records, anyway. The other half are from Norway.

I’ll be talking about another sort of fake science: Dawson’s Piltdown man. I don’t know why folks make fake ‘discoveries’ like the Piltdown Man, Cardiff Giant, and Archaeoraptor. I suspect hubris is involved, and I talked about that a month ago. (July 31, 2016)

Rip-Roaring Tales and Being Human

(From Wonder Stories, via, used w/o permission.)
(Illustrations for Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved.” (1931))

The Man Who Evolved” is science fiction, but not particularly scientific. Edmond Hamilton may or may not have known that dosing a human with heavy concentrations of cosmic rays would result in a very dead human: but scientists of the 1930s did.

Some folks, exposed to tales like “The Man Who Evolved” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” might grow up to be scientists: because of, or despite, the melodrama.

Others — sometimes I think nobody could mistake rip-roaring tales like those for serious science. But sometimes I’m not so sure: particularly when I’m feeling grim, or enduring a cold.

I introduced you to Mr. Squibbs, the intense little fellow over there, last week; and — have used that picture rather often, I see. (August 21, 2016; August 5, 2016; July 22, 2016)

Where was I? Cavemen, ersatz science, monster movies. Right.

This is not where I start ranting about “tampering with things man was not supposed to know.”

I have to believe that: God created and is creating a good and ordered universe; we’re made in the image of God, rational creatures — and stewards of the physical world. (Genesis 1:2728, Psalms 19:2; Wisdom 7:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 16, 341, 373, 1730)

We’re supposed to be curious about where we came from and where we’re going. This curiosity isn’t idle. We’re “called to a personal relationship with God,” and can learn something of God by studying God’s creation. (Catechism, 282289, 299, 301)

Learning more about this universe, and using that knowledge to develop technologies, is part of our job. Ethics apply, of course. (Catechism, 22922296)

It also gives us opportunities for “even greater admiration” of God’s greatness. (Catechism, 283)

And now, paraphrasing Rocket J. Squirrel’s line, here’s something I hope you’ll really like.

1. Buried for Millennia: Big Stones and Unanswered Questions

(From James Robertson/, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Archaeologists say they can only speculate at the moment as to the reason why the structure was built”
(BBC News))

Mystery stone structure under Neolithic dump on Orkney
Steven McKenzie, BBC News, (August 22, 2016)

Archaeologists have uncovered a mysterious stone structure buried under what they describe as Scotland’s ‘largest Neolithic rubbish dump’.

“The layout of the stone slabs, known as orthostats, found during a dig at Ness of Brodgar on Orkney is unlike anything previously found on the islands.

“Archaeologists are also mystified as to why the structure was covered over by a huge midden.

“They have speculated that it could possibly be a chambered tomb.

“However, the dig team, which is led by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, said further ‘hard work’ would be needed to properly understand the find….”

If I was an archeologist living around the year 5300, I might find a collection of Steuben crystal interesting.

But I’d likely be more interested in a well-preserved 20th-century landfill. My guess is that there isn’t much, short of disaster zones like Pompeii, that’s a better ‘snapshot’ of how folks lived and worked.

The Ness of Brodgar is between Stonehenge-style installations near Brodgar and Stenness on the Orkney Islands, off Scotland’s north shore.

Construction at the Ness of Brodgar started roughly five millennia back, around the time Merneith was running Egypt, give or take a few centuries. Folks kept building there for another millennia, until about the time Sargon started the Akkadian Empire.

Given the massive stonework and the effort involved in building and rebuilding it for a millennium; I think it’s obvious that it was very important to folks who lived in the area.

Why they built it, and then started dismantling it, is a good question.

Archeologists have found pottery, cremated animal bones, stone tools, and polished stone mace heads: which suggests that some sort of ceremonies happened there. Maybe it was a “temple:” or maybe ceremonies happened there because it was an administrative center.

Think about it: archeologists on Chesapeake Bay’s west shore in the 52nd century might find evidence of ceremonial activity around the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Only a few kilometers (or whatever units they’re using), they’d find the remains of something very much like Greek temples, but built about two dozen centuries after the Aegean prototypes.

They might speculate that the area had been a temple complex —

I recommend Robert Nathan’s “The Weans” (1960, available through for a “…fascinating story of the expeditions of Kenya’s greatest scientists who discovered the civilization of the Weans.”

It’s a funny (my opinion) look at how wildly wrong archeologists could be, getting evidence and assumptions confused.


2. Öetzi’s Eclectic Wardrobe

(From Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Researchers from Ireland and Italy studied nine samples from six items”
(BBC News))

DNA traces origins of Iceman’s ragtag wardrobe
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (August 18, 2016)

DNA analysis of Oetzi the Iceman’s clothes has traced their origin to at least five different species of animal.

“Among his kit were a hat of brown bear skin and a quiver made from roe deer.

“Despite being well preserved and studied, the 5,300-year-old mummy’s various leather items had not all been identified at the species level.

“These findings, published in Scientific Reports, reveal a mix of wild-hunted animals with sheep, goat and cattle related to modern domestic breeds….”

“Oetzi’s” coat was a patchwork of sheep and goat skin; his fur cap started out on a brown bear; and his leggings were goat skin.

Maybe he was a fashionista, sporting the latest thing in menswear. Or maybe his coat was the best he could do with materials on hand. We may never know.

We also don’t know why he was in the stretch of mountains we call the Ötztal Alps — that’s where our nickname for him, Ötzi, comes from — or what he did for a living.

Copper particles and arsenic in his hair hint that he worked in or lived near a copper smelting operation, but his legs and pelvis look like he spent a lot of time walking in hilly country.

Maybe he was a high-altitude shepherd. Or maybe he worked in a copper refinery and liked to take long hikes.

We do know, from pollen, dust grains, and isotopes in his tooth enamel, that he grew up eastwards of where he was buried; near where Feldthurns is now. Later he moved to valleys around Bolzano — that’s what folks call Bauzanum these days.

His clothing, physical condition, and tech found with his body, tell us that he was an agropastoralist: someone whose daily life involved agriculture and livestock herding.

Although we’re pretty sure about when he lived, some folks put him in the Neolithic, others in the copper age, or Chalcolithic. That’s because periods overlap. In Ötzi’s day some folks had been smelting and using copper for some two millennia, while others weren’t up to speed with the new tech.

Pollen from his second-to-last meal puts Ötzi’s death in the spring. He was around 45 years old at that point; 1.65 meters, around five and a half feet, tall; and weighed about 50 kilograms, 110 pounds.

That’s about average for folks living after agriculture caught on, short and scrawny compared to the earlier hunters. It took about five millennia for us to work the bugs out of agricultural tech and social structures, and that’s yet another topic.

Arrowheads, Genes, and Respect

Ötzi apparently died fighting. There’s an arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder, a deep cut on one hand hadn’t had time to heal, and there’s evidence of a blow to his head.

His final encounter wasn’t one-sided, though. There’s blood from a total of four other folks on his gear: including some from two individuals on one of his arrowheads, and blood from another on his coat.

Ötzi may have carried one of them on his back, suggesting that he was with someone and they were both attacked. The odds are that Ötzi died near where his body was found — or maybe he’d been carried uphill after being killed. That’s another detail we don’t know.

We’ve learned a great deal about genetics in the quarter-century since Ötzi’s body turned up. Analyzing mitochondrial DNA told scientists what critters his clothes were made from. His body is very well-preserved — including intact blood cells — so we’ve got his DNA profile, too.

Ötzi has at least 19 male relatives living in Tyrol, but most of his kinfolk live elsewhere in southern Europe; particularly places like Corsica and Sardinia.

When they’re not being studied, his body and possessions are displayed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: established in 1998 specifically to house Europe’s famous mummy.

“…The body is held in a climate controlled chamber within the museum at a temperature of -6 Celsius and 98% humidity, replicating glacier conditions in which it was found. Along with original finds there are models, reconstructions and multimedia presentations showing Ötzi in the context of the early history of the southern Alpine region….”

This is a far cry from the postmortem commercial exploitation of Elmer McCurdy’s body, so I’m not overly concerned about the museum’s display.

I certainly don’t fear “Ötzi’s curse:” the notion that bad things happen to folks who disturb the mummy’s existence. True, seven of the several hundred folks involved have died during the intervening 25 years: but that’s about what you’d expect, statistically.

My concern is more a matter of respect. Ötzi didn’t stop being a person when he died. He’s not using his body at the moment, but it’s still the physical component of a human person. (Catechism, 23002301)

I talked about civilization, autopsies, and being human, last month. (July 15, 2016)


3. Piltdown Man: Dawson Acted Alone

(From Karolyn Shindler, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“CSI Piltdown: DNA analysis was conducted on the specimens (seen in the background)”
(BBC News))

Piltdown review points decisive finger at forger Dawson
Jonathan Webb, BBC News August 10, 2016)

Researchers have finished an eight-year study of one of the most infamous forgeries in the history of science – the fake human ancestor Piltdown Man.

“They conclude that the forged fossils were made by one man: the prime suspect and ‘discoverer’ Charles Dawson.

“The human-like skull fragments and an ape-like jaw, complete with two teeth, shook the scientific world in 1912 but were exposed as a hoax in 1953.

“The research, published in Royal Society Open Science, was a multi-disciplinary collaboration including palaeobiologists, historians, dental experts and ancient DNA specialists….”

Not all scientist thought Piltdown Man was what Dawson claimed. In 1915, for example, Gerrit Smith Miller said the Piltdown jaw was from a fossil ape. He was right.

The jaw and a tooth were from an orangutan that most likely came from southwest Sarawak. Dawson apparently pried teeth out of the jaw, ground them down to look more ‘human,’ and stuck them back in place.

The rest of the skull was human, from the medieval era, Mr. Dawson stained the bones to make them look old, used dentist’s putty to cement the pieces together, and got his 15 minutes of fame.

This is not the sort of legacy I’d want:

“The Piltdown man forgery of 1912 was one of the most successful and wicked of all scientific frauds….”
(“Piltdown Man: The Great English Mystery Story,” Keith Stewart Thomson (1991))

Dawson’s forgery succeeded partly because he made his ersatz fossil look like the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans that some scientists figured should exist. It also made England’s East Sussex humanity’s cradle. I talked about bias disguised as science earlier.

It’s been decades since I’ve run into the Piltdown Man used as an example of how evolution is wrong, or the Scopes Monkey Trial as proof that Christians are willfully ignorant. Like I keep saying, I don’t miss the ‘good old days.’

I’m not sure what bothers me most about the Piltdown hoax: the decades of wasted effort spent studying the fake, attention that wasn’t paid to real evidence, or the brouhaha represented by the Scopes Monkey Trial.


More-or-less-related posts:

1 Seriously: I should love God, love my neighbor, see everybody as my neighbor, and treat others as I’d like to be treated. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

If I found myself despising someone else, my job would be rooting out that attitude: not finding excuses for it.

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Brodgar, Öetzi, and Piltdown Man

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Missing letter: “Dawsn’s Piltdown man. I don’t know”

    Wrong word: “near where Feldthurns is how.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

  2. Naomi Gill, thanks! It took me to find the “h” in “Feldthurns is how.”

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