The Pig Tooth That Spurred A Century Of Debate About Evolution

Illustration for article titled The Pig Tooth That Spurred A Century Of Debate About Evolution

In 1922, papers around the world trumpeted the discovery of the oldest human fossil ever yet discovered — “Nebraska Man.” If you haven’t heard about it, it’s because you don’t hang out on creationist websites.


Henry Fairfield Osborn was incredibly excited when he got an ancient tooth in the mail. As the head of the American Museum of Natural History, he was looking for evidence of early human life, and this tooth was perfect. It had come from a human who, ten million years ago, had inhabited North America as a hunter-gatherer. Osborn had been seeking this ancient human not just out of intellectual curiosity, but to prove a point. He and William Jennings Bryan, a creationist and political firebrand, were angrily exchanging open letters about evolution. The tooth seemed the perfect way to show Bryan that humans had evolved, and had done so over millions of years.

Osborn’s enthusiasm was short-lived. More teeth turned up, and as they did, he and the scientific community realized that the teeth were not human, or even primate teeth. They were the teeth of an ancient pig, probably similar to a peccary.

Nebraska Man’s legacy, in the scientific community, ended with a whimper. In the creationist community, Nebraska Man’s legend lives on. A quick search for Nebraska Man brings up the requisite Wikipedia entry, and then creationist site after creationist site. To a certain extent, that’s understandable. When Osborn announced the finding of primate fossils, newspapers, journals, and the scientifically-minded responded not just with enthusiasm but with an overwhelming smugness. Some wanted to name Nebraska Man after William Jennings Bryan, with the understanding that Nebraska Man was the more intelligent and sophisticated of the two. This built up a lot of bad will, which has been vented ever since. On the other hand, most sites make the point that no one would have been fooled into thinking that Nebraska Man existed if no one believed in evolution. While true, this is a bit like saying that people who don’t believe in mammals won’t get fooled into believing in Bigfoot. It’s not wrong, but it’s also not right in a very important way.

[Source: Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig]

Top Image: Illustrated London News



A good rule for debate- don’t be an a-hole even if you think you’re winning.