Nebraska Man

Evolution "Missing Link" Hoax

Nebraska Man Illustration by Amédée Forestier

Illustrated London News / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Theory of Evolution has always been a controversial topic and continues to be in modern times as well. While scientists clamor to find the "missing link" or the bones of ancient human ancestors to add to the fossil record and collect even more data to back up their ideas, others have tried to take matters into their own hands and create fossils they claim are the "missing link" of human evolution. Most notably, Piltdown Man had the scientific community talking for 40 years before it was finally definitively debunked. Another discovery of the "missing link" that turned out to be a hoax was called Nebraska Man.

Discovery of a Mysterious Tooth

Maybe the word "hoax" is a bit harsh to use in the case of Nebraska Man because it was more of a case of mistaken identity than an all-out fraud like the Piltdown Man turned out to be. In 1917, a farmer and part time geologist named Harold Cook who lived in Nebraska found a single tooth that looked remarkably similar to an ape or a human molar. About five years later, he sent it to be examined by Henry Osborn at Columbia University. Osborn excitedly declared this fossil to be a tooth from the first ever discovered ape-like man in North America.

The single tooth grew in popularity and throughout the world and it wasn't long before a drawing of the Nebraska Man showed up in a London periodical. The disclaimer on the article that accompanied the illustration made it clear that the drawing was the artist's imagining of what the Nebraska Man may have looked like, even though the only anatomical evidence of its existence was a single molar. Osborn was very adamant that there was no way anyone could know what this newly discovered hominid could look like based on a single tooth and denounced the picture publicly.

Debunking Nebraska Man

Many in England who saw the drawings were quite skeptical that a hominid had been discovered in North America. In fact, one of the primary scientists who had examined and presented the Piltdown Man hoax was vocally skeptical and said that a hominid in North America just did not make sense in the timeline of the history of life on Earth. After some time had passed, Osborn agreed that the tooth may not be a human ancestor, but was convinced it was at least a tooth from an ape that had branched off from a common ancestor as the human lines did.

In 1927, after examining the area the tooth was discovered and uncovering more fossils in the area, it was finally decided the Nebraska Man tooth was not from a hominid after all. In fact, it was not even from an ape or any ancestor on the human evolution timeline. The tooth turned out to belong to a pig ancestor from the Pleistocene time period. The rest of the skeleton was found at the same site the tooth had originally come from and it was found to fit the skull.

Lessons Learned From Nebraska Man

Even though Nebraska Man was a short-lived "missing link", it tells of a very important lesson to paleontologists and archaeologists working in the field. Even though a single piece of evidence looks to be something that could fit into a hole in the fossil record, it needs to be studied and more than one piece of evidence needs to be uncovered before declaring the existence of something that actually does not exist. This is a basic tenet of science where discoveries of a scientific nature must be verified and tested by outside scientists in order to prove its veracity. Without this checks and balances system, many hoaxes or mistakes will pop up and stall out the true scientific discoveries.