The Auriferous Gravel Man of Tuolumne County
The standard position on humans in North America is that they’re new. The really standard position is “Clovis First”, which is to say that people first came over the Bering Land Bridge no more than about 13,000 years ago—some “short chronology” theories extend that to 16,000 but that’s about it.
On the other hand even the long chronologies, as exemplified by Monte Verde and the wilder Solutrean Hypothesis, are only moderately more long. With a few exceptions like the Topper site no-one is exceeding 25,000 BC, mostly because their proponents need to account for why pre-Clovis cultures were so thin on the ground in contrast to the explosive peopling of the Americas on the post- side. This is, on the surface, surprisingly late; Australia is the second most recently populated continent (counting the North and South America as one), and its history goes back at least 40,000 years and likely more.
This contraction of North America’s horizons largely comes down to the influence of one person, Aleš Hrdlička, who (despite the name) was the American anthropologist who proposed the Beringian theory and dominated the discussion for the early 1900s. Hrdlička notoriously ratcheted down the timeframe for human occupation of the Americas even past the point now accepted—just a few thousand years, in fact, until the discovery of the Folsom Complex and then the Clovis Culture pushed it back a bit.
Before Hrdlička, though, American scientists entertained the possibility that humans lived in the Americas for truly immense periods. In the late 19th century no-one even knew which continent had been the cradle of the human race (Asia was the front-runner, with Africa the also-ran and the others at least a possibility). With that in mind, the discovery in Europe of 200,000 year-old Neanderthal tools merely got archaeologists looking everywhere for fossils and artifacts that were even older still. In the United States this came to a head with an extensive debate over finds in Tuolumne County, near Sacramento, California.
Stanislaus Table Mountain is a long ridge of lava sitting on top of some of what made California famous: gravel beds full of gold washed down from the Sierra Nevada. It runs for about 100 kilometers between Tuolumne and Calaveras Counties west and then south of what is now Yosemite National Park, and so it was in the core of the California Gold Rush. California’s easily accessible gold was found very quickly, but miners traced the area’s various ancient riverbeds soon thereafter. They soon discovered, without actually understanding it in a modern geological sense, that Table Mountain was a lahar—the lava and mud flow of an ancient volcano that had hit a major river and followed its channel for mile after mile. When it solidified, it had covered a long series of river gravel the miners had every reason to believe carried gold.
So they got out their hard-rock mining equipment and went to work. The first ancient river gravel was uncovered in 1855 and, while it was cemented solid, it was rich in gold—literally paydirt, as this is the time and place when that word was coined. For twenty years the Table Mountain deposits were one of the most important sources of gold in the world, and mining continued into the 20th century.
Ancient riverbeds are often a source of fossils too, and the ones under the lahar turned out to be no different. Among the items found over the years have been the skeletons of early horses and antelopes, fossilized tree trunks, and mastodon teeth. The most interesting finds came from the Valentine Shaft, where a human jaw was brought to the surface, as well as several human artifacts—a mortar and pestle, obsidian points. Most of them were explicitly described as coming from the gravel beds well under the mountain itself and there’s no getting past the fact that radioisotope dating puts the Table Mountain lahar at 9.2 million years old; the upper levels of the river gravel would be the same, and gradually grow older the deeper one got.
The artifacts were brought to the attention of the world by Josiah D. Whitney, the state geologist for California and after whom the tallest mountain in the continental US is named. In the mid-1860s he had come to the conclusion that his state had been been home to profoundly ancient human beings. When he made his announcement and showed his evidence, the chain of paleontological evidence we have in the 21st century was just barely begun so Whitney’s claims weren’t completely outrageous. Even so, the extreme antiquity claimed for the finds made enough people uneasy that an academic free-for-all erupted that would last until the turn of the 20th.
Dubbed the Auriferous (“Gold-Bearing”) Gravel Man, the hypothetical ancestor had his champions. Othniel Marsh may have made his fame by finding Allosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus before Edward Drinker Cope, but the only quote of his one sees these days runs “The existence of man in the Tertiary period seems now fairly established”. Marsh became President of the National Academy of Sciences four years after saying that, so this was a respectable-enough position. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the work of William J. Sinclair was generally accepted as proving that the Gravel Man was about a thousand years old. At first, though, the artifacts and human fossils had looked good. What happened that they could convince so many people while being other than what they seem?
There’s a few possibilities for how the artifacts got there that don’t overturn too much science to be plausible. The first is one that haunts a lot of archaeological finds: the way many human cultures deal with their dead by burying them and at least some of their possessions. For example, Louis Leakey’s first big African discovery, Kanjera Man, turned out not to be evidence of an ancient human ancestor but one just a few thousand years old who had been put several paleontological layers lower than he should have been by (one presumes) grieving relatives. Some of the Tuolumne County artifacts might have been found around the edges of the area where it wouldn’t have been too hard for them to be buried there by post-Clovis Indians.
The major problem with that theory is the repeated appearance of the artifacts in truly deep deposits. For our second explanation, we need to turn to a find from nearby Calaveras County, the Calaveras Skull. It was this skull with which, in 1866, Whitney first publicly declared evidence of extreme human antiquity in California. While the Tuolumne artifacts had been found earlier, he discovered them afterwards; the publicity surrounding the Skull was what got people coming forward with stories from around California.
The skull is famous in creationist circles as a piece of evidence against the scientific consensus on the origin of Homo sapiens, and by association the entire history of the Earth. It’s a perfectly modern skull from a situation very similar to the Tuolumne discoveries, a deeply buried set of auriferous gravels—or so the story goes. And that’s the problem with the Calaveras Skull: it’s definitely a story. It doesn’t take much digging to turn up a late-in-life confession from one of a group of hoaxsters who took skulls from an Indian burial ground and then claimed to have found them “down deep”. What isn’t immediately apparent is that the Skull is symptomatic of the miner culture of the Californian Gold Rush.
Does the name Calaveras County sound familiar? If you live in North America there’s a good chance you encountered it during a reading assignment in school: Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. It’s the quintessential American tall tale, and Twain didn’t pick the setting for no reason. The county’s rich mining town, Mokelumne Hill, was the centre of California’s Clampers, the fraternal order whose motto is Credo Quia Absurdum—“I believe it because it is absurd”, if you’re willing to bend Latin out of shape. Practical joking was a major pastime during the California Gold Rush, and therein lies the problem.
Whitney collected virtually all of his evidence second-hand…or third, or fourth. With only a couple of exceptions the fossils and artifacts were found by miners and brought to academics, not discovered by trained geologists themselves. This naturally leads to the suspicion that legs were being pulled (though interestingly, at the time charges of trickery were most common from those with firm religious beliefs—the ultimate short chronology is biblical chronology). There have been attempts to downplay the likelihood of rustic miners playing a scientific joke, but that’s just snobbery. The miners were men whose livelihood depending on learning about and understanding geological strata. All it would take would be one miner with an education, or one without who listened with interest to a formal geologist, for an understanding of the incongruity of human remains in ancient deposits to spread through the mining camps. The Tuolumne discoveries haven’t got anything like the hoax confession of the Calaveras Skull, but the strong likelihood is that they sprang from the same culture.
There’s one other possible wrinkle to the tale, for which there’s no evidence but about which it’s interesting to speculate. The California Gold Rush was not the United States’ first. There was another, much smaller one in the northern parts of Georgia starting in the late 1820s. That gold was found almost exclusively on Cherokee land, and it was this mini-gold rush as much as anything else that precipitated the Trail of Tears. In later decades after they were removed to the west of the Mississippi River, Cherokee with gold-mining experience often ended up in California. Now consider that the Auriferous Gravel Man wasn’t just saying that the human race was old—it was saying that Native Americans were old. It’s not too hard to picture some Cherokee refugee, maybe stung by the horrific treatment of Californian Indians by the forty-niners, first thinking up the trick as a subtle way to make a point to anyone with the eyes to see it.