Here’s an unusual case, from the letters page of the Daily Echo of Bournemouth (Dorset, UK). It’s got nothing to do with that Lady of Guadalupe or even this Lady of Guadalupe (different spelling and different places), which probably fall into the category Bad Relics (or, at least, Bad Art). No, this is to do with a skeleton discovered on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1812. Now, I don’t have the time to go trawling English provincial newspapers for stories about Bad Archaeology—although I have every reason to believe that they are a good source for them—much less their letter pages. Instead, I’m indebted to this post by The Sensuous Curmudgeon, a blogger who focuses “on the “evolution vs. creationism” controversy because that’s where the domestic enemies of freedom and reason are currently active”. He blogs with humour and insight, providing a commentary on the science deniers who dislike the idea of evolution, usually for their own sectarian religious purposes. The Curmudgeon draws attention to the letter of Mike Aston (no, not the late archaeologist Mick Aston, known to millions thanks to the television programme Time Team). He says that “[b]ecause today’s writer isn’t a politician, preacher, or other public figure, we won’t embarrass or promote him by using his full name”, but I am perfectly happy to name and shame. The Curmudgeon is undoubtedly a gentleman: does my willingness to provide the writer’s name make me a bad person? It’s a matter of public record, so I would guess not. Here’s the text of the letter in full, just in case it disappears from the Daily Echo’s website, as letters often do after a few months):
Evolution is just a theory
First published Saturday 4 April 2015 in Letters to the Editor THE media is full of evolutionary talk these days. It is taught in schools as fact, when the truth is it is still only a theory, it is not fact. Professor Fred Hoyle, the former astronomer royal, said “the odds of life having spontaneously formed on earth are the same as for a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 ready for take off”. The fact is there are big holes in the evolutionary theory and intelligent design is a much more likely solution. In 1812 a well documented woman’s skeleton was discovered buried in a massive sandstone block over a mile in length on the island of Guadeloupe. Known as Guadeloupe Woman she was 5ft 2 inches tall with head and feet missing. The rock was dated at 28million years old, 25million years before we were supposed to be here. You will find little reference to this in evolutionary texts. She was quietly moved to the basement of the British Museum after the publication of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and I believe she is still there. Perhaps she should be returned to a place where the public can view her again? It would certainly start a debate. MIKE ASTON Beatty Road, Bournemouth
My usual reaction to this sort of thing is to think that it’s not even wrong, to use Wolfgang Pauli’s phrase (nicht einmal falsch in the original German) to describe a poorly written paper. But it provides material for me to write about and is an egregious example of the stupidity of science deniers. I had not heard of it until yesterday (or, if I had, it had made no impression on me) and it isn’t referred to in most of the usual books on “ancient mysteries”. It isn’t even in Cremo and Thompson’s vast compendium of discredited fossils, Forbidden Archeology. So, let’s start by looking at the claim.
Guadelopue Woman discovered
What is known about the discovery of the skeleton in 1812? We know from records of the British Museum that Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane (1758-1832), Governor of Guadeloupe from January 1810 to 1814, presented it to the Museum in 1813. The date of 1812 is when Cochrane became aware of the skeleton, which was among a number of objects taken as booty when the English navy captured the island from the French. It was in a block of stone that was being prepared for transport to France, to be examined by the naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). A bed of rock, more than a mile (1.6 km) long, close to Le Moule on the north-eastern coast of Guadeloupe was the source of numerous skeletons, of which this was just one. Cochrane had it sent to England, where it was examined at the British Museum by Karl (Charles) König (1774–1851), Keeper of the Natural History collections from 1813. König presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1814, announcing that the skeleton was evidently not a fossil. He was puzzled by it and found it impossible to assign it an age, as “our geological knowledge of Guadeloupe is yet too imperfect to assist in determining this question”. Nevertheless, he demonstrated that the bones were embedded not in solid rock but in a concretion of calcareous sand, noting that “[i]t may be of very recent formation”. Fossil humans were big news at the time. Cuvier long insisted that no fossilised human remains had been discovered, although he changed his mind towards the end of his life, after indisputably petrified hominid bone was found. Nevertheless, he opposed evolutionary theories that were then being formulated, preferring instead to believe in extinction through catastrophes. Others thought it merely a matter of time until the fossilised remains of early humans were found. A Neanderthal skull found in Gibraltar in 1848 was not at first recognised as a fossil hominid. It was not until miners at the Feldhofer Grotto in the Neander valley found a skeleton in 1857 that the first extinct hominid species was described. The Guadeloupe skeleton became part of the permanent collections of the Natural History Museum when it was founded in 1881, accessioned as M 16820. Many creationist websites fail to recognise that this is not the same institution as the British Museum. It remained on display from 1882 to 1967, when it was transferred to a store. In 2006 it was reaccessioned with the number PA HR 4128. Unfortunately, it does not currently appear on the Museum’s online database. There is nothing suspicious about this: the Museum holds a very large number number of objects and many of the more obscure items have not yet been added.
Guadeluope Woman and creationists
König recognised the skeleton as that of a modern woman, which has given creationists great delight. Although I was unaware of its existence until yesterday, there are plenty of websites that mention it (Google tells me that there are “[a]bout 1,690 results” today). That makes my heart sink. Partly at discovering that there is just so much stupidity out there and partly at thinking how much research I have got to do to examine the claims. Fortunately, though, it’s not that bad. Most of these results are simply copy-and-paste jobs, mostly on creationist sites but also, hearteningly, on debunking sites. Few, though, seem to have done any real research, preferring to parrot each other. There are a few exceptions, including in Google Books. The principal claim is that this is the skeleton of a Homo sapiens of fully modern type, embedded in a very ancient sandstone. Creationists seem to have started to use Guadloupe Woman as evidence for their twisted beliefs as a result of a publication by Bill Cooper in Creation Ex Nihilo 3 (3), pp 6-9. Its title, Human fossils from Noah’s Flood, gives us a clue about the slant he chose to take. As we’ve already seen, the skeleton is not fossilised, a fact that has been known since 1814. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of Cooper’s paper and it is not archived anywhere on the web, so I am dependent on secondary reports of what it claims. It is possible that this site contains the original text, but without sight of the original publication, I have not been able to verify this.
Cooper is the source of the claim that the skeleton was discovered in 1812, which isn’t quite right. However, this means that anyone using this date ultimately depends on his paper: König does not mention a date for the find, but it must be earlier than the English capture of Guadeloupe in 1810. That is not a major problem, but it does suggest that Cooper failed to undertake proper research into the circumstances of the discovery. Cooper then claims that the skeleton was embedded in a Lower Miocene deposit conventionally dated 25 million years old. Now, the Miocene is currently dated 23,030,000 to 5,333,000 years ago, but what’s two million years to a creationist who believes the universe to be under 10,000 years old? His point is to ridicule “evolutionary timescales”. König stated in 1814 that he could not ascertain whether the “rock” in which the skeleton was embedded was of recent formation or ancient. So how did Bill Cooper decide that it was a Lower Miocene deposit? For one thing, he claims that its matrix is limestone, whereas König had said that it was a concretion of calcareous sand: these are not the same thing! A map of the findspot (helpfully labelled Figure 1 Fossil Site Location & Profile) appears to be from Cooper’s original publication; I have cleaned up the version posted on this website. Notice how the strata are labelled MIOCENE?? This suggests to me that there is some doubt about their date. Even allowing for the bedrock being of this date, there is no evidence that the concretion containing Guadeloupe Woman was Miocene: the “5 in thick “flagstones”” shown in the profile give us an important clue to the identity of the deposit. It is beachrock, a material that forms in the inter-tidal zone and characteristically cracks into slab-like formations. This is the material that makes up the Bimini “road”, a natural formation that has been falsely claimed as artificial and evidence for Atlantis. Also, notice that there is a cemetery (Clerc’s sandy graveyard) above the high water mark. This is a cemetery excavated by the archaeologist Edgar Clerc (1915-1982), founder of the Musée Edgar Clerc. The cemetery dates from the period after Columbus’s voyages to the Caribbean at the end of the fifteenth century and is dated by artefacts and a dog skeleton associated with the bodies. The graves are cut into a sandy deposit, which is clearly the source of the beachrock in which Guadeloupe Woman was embedded. Thus, we can dispose of a Miocene date for the “rock” and for the skeleton. Never mind. Bill Cooper goes on to claim that “[e]arly in the nineteenth century, it was displayed to the public as a curiosity, being the only example of a fossil man embedded in a limestone mass”. That may indeed be the case. However, he went on to allege a dark conspiracy by wicked “evolutionists”: “when Darwinism gained a foothold in academic circles, the specimen was quietly removed from public display”. This is the source of Mike Aston’s claim that “[s]he was quietly moved to the basement of the British Museum after the publication of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution”. Cooper visited the Natural History Museum in the early 1980s and was “given to understand, in fact, that [he] was the first member of the public to set eyes on it since the early 1930s”. We have already seen that the skeleton remained on display until 1967. Innuendo about deceitful scientists is a common ploy used by dishonest creationists.
Lessons to be learned from Guadeloupe Woman
One of the first lessons is that creationists will continue to reproduce bad data long after they have been debunked. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum produced a direct rebuttal of Cooper’s claims that was given out to enquirers following the publication of the paper in Creation Ex Nihilo in 1983. He eventually had it published in that journal. This did not stop Bill Cooper from using Guadeloupe Woman as the basis for a public lecture he gave as part of the Creation Science Movement, “the oldest creationist movement in the world”. A visit to the Natural History Museum by the rival creationist Biblical Creation Society soon after this lecture convinced its members that the skeleton is not good evidence for their sectarian interpretation of the geological column. Even hardline creationists state that other creationists should not use discredited arguments. There is no excuse for Mike Aston to bring up Guadeloupe Woman, who was debunked more than 30 years ago.
Mike Aston’s letter also shows the use of false analogy, using Fred Hoyle’s (1915-2001) discredited tornado in a junkyard. Although he originally used it as an argument against abiogensis in his argument for panspermia, it has been taken up eagerly by creationists who fail to understand the cumulative nature of biological evolution. It is one of those utterly worthless arguments that shows up creationists’ lack of knowledge of how evolution works. Incidentally, Fred Hoyle never was Astronomer Royal. Mr Aston also indulges in the equally daft idea that evolution ”is still only a theory”, a failure to understand the nature of scientific theories. Wikipedia usefully defines a scientific theory as “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world”. This is not the same as the popular use of the word theory to mean “guess”, which is what Mr Aston wrongly believes Theory of Evolution to mean. This is yet another of those arguments creationists advise each other not to use. Evolution is an observable fact, although creationists don’t like to admit it. The theory is a scientific explanation about how it occurs. There is no real debate among biologists that evolution occurs, nor that Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection working on random mutations over millennia is the most convincing explanation so far put forward. While there are arguments about specific details, the overarching theory is one of the most robust in all of science.
Guadeloupe Woman: conclusions
The skeleton of Guadeloupe Woman is of relatively recent date. This is adequately shown by the context of her findspot. For anyone to claim that she is a representative of human beings alive in the Miocene is to ignore rebuttals of the claim that have been in the public domain for more than 30 years. When someone like Mike Aston writes letters of this sort to local newspapers, they always turn out to be ill informed. Mr Aston is perhaps hoping to stir up a controversy. This is made evident by his otherwise irrelevant mention of intelligent design. This is a nonsensical, politically motivated attempt to have creationism taught in schools in the USA after the failure of “Scientific Creationsim”. It is all part of a wider “War on Science” by religious believers who are frightened by the way that centuries of discovery and refinement of knowledge is eating away at their cherished beliefs. Archaeology is only a small part of their problems, but their denial of science impacts every area of human learning.
Footnote: The Creation Science Movement
The Creation Science Movement was founded in 1932 and started out as The Evolution Protest Movement. Based in Portsmouth (Hants, UK), it continues to claim that “society witnesses to the effect of atheistic humanism which belief in the theory of evolution has brought–fragmented family units, abortion, child abuse etc.”. It runs its own exhibition in the former National Provincial Bank at The Hard in Portsmouth, called Genesis Expo (warning: Boris the Tyrannosaurus rex is terrifying, apparently the bastard offspring of Jurassic Park’s T Rex and Barney). I wonder if Mike Aston is a member of the group?