Repost: O.C. Marsh and the Nevada Giant

[Note: Once again I have found myself with too many writing projects and too little time. Expect something substantial to appear here tomorrow, but for now enjoy an old tale about the “Nevada Giant.”]

The role petrified bones and footprints have played in the origin of myths and legends has been recognized since the 19th century, but it has only been recently that the connection between fossils and mythology has been appreciated as a subject worthy of careful scrutiny. (See The First Fossil Hunters, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, and American Monster). It should be kept in mind, however, that there are modern legends just as there are ancient ones.

In the summer of 1882 news spread far and wide that the footprints of a giant human had been discovered in a prison quarry near Carson City, Nevada. Found among the tracks of known prehistoric mammals, the roughly half-moon shaped impressions were about 18 inches long by 8 inches wide, and California Academy of Sciences naturalist H.W. Harkness concluded that they probably had been made by a giant. The fact that the tracks did not preserve any details of the bottom of the foot, Harkness speculated, meant that these particular giants had been wearing sandals.

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The foot of a giant sloth and a diagram of a Carson City “giant” print compared. From Marsh 1883.

Harkness’ claims soon reached the attention of geologist Joseph LeConte and paleontologist O.C. Marsh, and both published alternate explanations of the tracks in 1882. (Other researchers wrote about these tracks, as well, although getting a hold of their papers has been something of a challenge.) Both thought that the tracks had most likely been made by a giant ground sloth. According to Marsh, there were even some forefoot impressions contained within the prints made by the hind feet, a pattern more consistent with giant ground sloths than mythical humanoids. Harkness’ imagination had clearly run away with him.

Interestingly, though, E.D. Cope (Marsh’s long-time rival) included a note on the tracks in an editorial column in the American Naturalist in January of 1883. Like some of the other paleontologists interested in the tracks Cope had not seen the tracks in person, but he was clearly impressed enough by them to propose that they represented the creature from which “existing man” had sprung;

The discovery that the tracks of several species of Pliocene Mammalia in the argillaceous sandstones of the quarry of the Nevada State Prison at Carson, are accompanied by those of a biped resembling man, is a further confirmation of [the contemporaneous existence of humans with ancient mammals in North America.]. The tracks are clearly those of a biped, and are not those of a member of the Simiidae, but must be referred to the Hominidae. Whether they belong to a species of the genus Homo or not, cannot be ascertained from the tracks alone, but can be determined on the discovery of the bones and teeth. In any case the animal was probably the ancestor of existing man, and was a contemporary of the Elephas primigenius [mammoth] and a species of Equus.

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A section of a quarry map showing the “human” footprints. From Cope 1883.

Cope’s enthusiasm aside, it seems that many (if not most) paleontologists accepted the giant sloth explanation for the tracks. Even so, the “giant” interpretation did not fully disappear until Chester Stock did further analysis of the tracks and giant sloth foot structure in 1912 and 1920. Marsh and LeConte were correct; the tracks had been made by giant sloths. By this time whatever doubts were held in the scientific community about the origins of the tracks were laid to rest, and the event fell into obscurity as scientific reality overtook the new mythology.

The case of the Carson City tracks is interesting because the origin of the giant interpretation differs from similar claims made by young earth creationists today. Fraudulent tracks are often proffered as proof that humans walked with dinosaurs, yet the Carson City tracks were authentic. They were simply misinterpreted by Harkness, Cope, and others with expert authority, and scientific debate inevitably felled the “Nevada Giant.”

Cope, E.D. (1883) “The Nevada Biped Tracks.” American Naturalist, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp.69-71
LeConte, J. (1883) “Carson Footprints.” Nature, Vol. 28, pp. 101-101
Marsh, O.C. (1883) “On the supposed human foot-prints recently found in Nevada.” American Journal of Science, Series 3, Vol. 26, pp. 139-140.