The Prehistoric Barbie Doll (Letter from the Smithsonian)

The Smithsonian Barbie Doll
Backyard Artifact. Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images

Netlore Archive: An official of the Smithsonian Institution responds to notification of an unusual find in a backyard archaeological dig — the two-million-year-old head of a Malibu Barbie doll. How did it get there?

Description: Viral joke
Circulating since: 1994
Status: False (details below)

Example:
Email text contributed by a reader in 1997:

Paleoanthropology Division
Smithsonian Institute
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled "211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post. Hominid skull." We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents "conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago." Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be the "Malibu Barbie". It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to it's modern origin:

  1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.

  2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids.

  3. The dentition pattern evident on the "skull" is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the "ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams" you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:

  A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.

  B. Clams don't have teeth.

It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in it's normal operation, and partly due to carbon dating's notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation's Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name "Australopithecus spiff-arino." Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn't really sound like it might be Latin.

However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation's capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the "trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix" that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

Yours in Science,
Harvey Rowe
Curator, Antiquities



Analysis: This droll narrative was conceived as a satire and never intended to fool anyone — though alas, it has. Not long after it began making the Internet rounds during the mid-1990s, someone added a preamble claiming the correspondence is authentic and the events described completely true. Neither, of course, is the case.

The putative sender, one Harvey Rowe, is a real person, though he is not a curator of antiquities, nor has he ever worked for the Smithsonian Institution. By his own admission he is the clever bugger who made up this tall tale, however. Now living in Arizona and employed in medical informatics, Dr. Rowe was a graduate student in South Carolina in 1994 when he first typed up the letter and emailed it to a few friends strictly for their amusement. One or more of those early recipients sent it on to their friends, who forwarded it on to theirs, etc., etc., and in short order Harvey Rowe's "totally fabricated" story had taken on a life of its own.

"It seems to have achieved critical mass [in 1995] and there was some evidence people were taking it seriously, despite the many hints that it was written with humorous intent," Rowe marveled in a 1998 interview with writer E.M. Ganin. "Shortly after that I did a search on my name and found it on about 100 websites, which surprised the hell out of me."

When last I checked, that number was in the thousands.

Further reading:

Interview with Harvey Rowe
By E.M. Ganin, May 1998

Urban Legends About the Smithsonian
Smithsonian.com, 21 September 2009

Last updated: 05/26/11