I recently read The Giant and How He Humbugged America, by Jim Murphy (Scholastic) and Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World, by Sally M. Walker and Douglas Owsley (Carolrhoda). Both are officially published as of today, but I read both in Netgalley editions.
I noticed something about the two books that intrigued me: they are both, at least in part, about how the public and science professionals deal with new discoveries. Murphy’s book is more about history and Walker’s is more about science, but both illustrate some fascinating aspects of American culture.
Murphy tells the story of the Cardiff Giant, a 10-foot tall supposed petrified man that was found in a field near Cardiff, New York in 1869. Obviously, we know from the subtitle of the book that the Giant was a hoax. But Murphy shows us first how ordinary people and so-called “experts” examined the creature, everyone giving their opinions as to its provenance and age. Was it a murder victim? An ancient Onandaga Indian? A biblical giant like Goliath? The first experts to examine the find were local doctors, all of whom declared that “the giant was indeed a petrified man.” Murphy implies that part of their reason was the anatomical accuracy of the giant. (By the way, although Murphy quotes the newspapers as saying that “for modesty’s sake, an improvised ‘fig leaf’ was kept over the loins,” he never actually shows us (at least in the Netgalley version, which didn’t contain all the illustrations) a full-frontal view of the Giant. You can easily find pictures online, though–sans fig leaf!)
The next “expert” to examine the giant was John Boynton, described as “a celebrated lecturer on scientific matters.” Boynton actually touched (and smelled and, apparently, licked) the giant, concluding that it was a man-made sculpture, probably dating to the 17th century. Still, most people believed that it was a petrified human, and some came up with “scientific” explanations for how petrifaction could have occurred.
The rest of the book goes into how the hoax was created and maintained, but more on that later.
In Their Skeletons Speak, Walker (with the help of forensic anthropologist Owsley) tells the story about the 1996 discovery in Washington state of the nearly-complete skeletal remains of what turned out to be a 9,000-year-old man. As with the Cardiff Giant, the initial questions were similar: were the bones human? Were they a murder victim? Recent or ancient? Were they from an Indian? An early settler?
And, as in the Cardiff case, experts were called in. But in this case, rather than simple sensory examination, the experts used all sorts of modern tools: CT scans, carbon-dating, etc.
Most of Walker’s book focuses on how paleontologists, archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, and other experts look at bones, implements, soil samples, and more to come to conclusions about the age and even more, about the lives and lifestyles of ancient peoples.
The thing that really intrigued me about these two books was the way that together they illustrated how scientific thinking has changed in the last 150 years. That late-19th-century post-industrial-revolution rationalism shines out clearly in Murphy’s book. I mean, look at the use of Boynton as a “celebrated lecturer on scientific matters,” when his credentials were that he was a physician and had dabbled in prospecting, inventing, and geology. Science as a discipline was admired, but not particularly well understood, at least by most people.
Of course, that’s probably still true today. And it does make you (well, me at least) wonder what people in another hundred years are going to think about the conclusions drawn by Walker’s archaeologists and forensic anthropologists!
Another thing that struck me about these two situations was the way in which both our attitudes and our laws regarding the American Indians have changed over time. One of the great issues regarding Kennewick Man was whether the remains belonged to one of the Native American tribes, and if so, what the proper disposition of the remains should be. In 1869, even though there was some thought that the Cardiff Giant might be an Onandaga Indian, there was no consideration that that should change anything about how he was displayed.
So together these two books really illustrate how differently our society and our scientific community deal with discoveries now than they did 150 years ago. It certainly seems that it would be much more difficult to pull off a hoax like the Cardiff Giant today (although, in actual fact, even in 1869 it didn’t take all that long to come to light). But still, as Murphy points out in his research notes, today we just fall for different hoaxes, like Bernie Madoff’s financial scheme.
Anyway, just some thoughts on these two books about discoveries. I thought both were fascinating and well-written, and wonderful additions to this year’s crop of great nonfiction books for young people. You?