February 25, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Dating Disaster: Is Neanderthal the New Piltdown?

We all know it by heart: Neanderthal Man was a big-boned, hairy cave-dweller that got pushed out of northern Europe 40,000 years ago by the smarter modern humans.  Could this all be wrong?  Did some bones actually belong to real people living in recorded history?
    The man who dated some of these bones, a carbon-14 dating specialist at Frankfurt University, Reiner Protsch von Zieten, has just resigned in disgrace after being investigated for fabricating data and plagiarizing the work of others, reports World Net Daily.  Last August, the UK News Telegraph broke the news about the investigation of Protsch.  Growing skepticism over his dates for Neanderthals were causing concern that a “dating disaster” was going to force anthropologists to “rewrite prehistory,” because dates he published, that they all trusted, were way off the mark.  Some famous skeletons he had dated at 36,000 years old turned out with independent tests to be only 7,500 years old, and another claimed by Protsch to be 21,300 years old was only 3,300.  Another specimen Protsch claimed was the oldest early human found in a region of Germany, which he dated at 27,400 years old with radiocarbon, turned out to belong to an elderly man who died around 1750 A.D.  Professor Protsch, who was fond of Cuban cigars and Porsches, has also been accused of illegally selling university fossils to American buyers, and of shredding documents relating to “ gruesome scientific experiments done by the Nazis in the 1930s.”
    Apparently this professor has “forged and manipulated facts for 30 years.”  The president of Frankfurt University apologized for not curbing his misconduct for so long, admitting that “A lot of people looked the other way.”  Now that the perpetrator has resigned, what lies in the wake of this latest paleoanthropolical hoax?  Chris Stringer, the head of human origins studies at the London Natural History Museum, put it bluntly: “What was considered a major piece of evidence showing that the Neanderthals once lived in northern Europe has fallen by the wayside.  We are having to rewrite prehistory.”  Robert Todd Carroll on The Skeptics Dictionary has a picture of Protsch and more details about his misdeeds.

The legacy of Darwinian paleoanthropology has been one of dating disasters, hoaxes and misinformation.  What did you expect?
    This story does not prove that every Neanderthal date is bogus (many more skeletons are known) but casts serious doubt on the whole evolutionary tale of modern humans in Europe.  We need to ask some hard-hitting follow-up questions.  Why did a lot of people look the other way?  Was it because the results provided by this dishonest man fit into their preconceived notion of human evolution?  Did some Neanderthals actually live among us in historical times?  If so, does this not throw the whole Neanderthal classification into disarray?  What other hoaxes are being promulgated right now by other dating labs and bone hunters?
    Carroll reminds us that, like Piltdown, this fraud was “discovered by scientists, reported by scientists, and it will be scientists who will work to correct the record.”  This is how science works, he preaches like a good positivist.  He understates, however, the fact that it took 50 years for Piltdown and 30 years in this case, and that the desire to believe in evolution had a lot to do with delaying the victory of the truth.

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Categories: Early Man

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