Bayou-Diversity (24 March 2019) On the morning of January 9, 1951, two Baton Rouge newspapers, the States Times and Morning Advocate, ran a story that fueled coffee shop gossip and tailgate prattle across the state for weeks to come. The articles described the discovery of “Neanderthal man – an 11 foot tall ancestor of modern man – that lived in North America about 50,000 years ago.” The backstory is that two days after Christmas in the preceding year a bulldozer operator was working up a pile of gravel in a pit in the Sicily Island Hills in Catahoula Parish when he noticed what appeared to be bones of a large mammal. They spilled out of the vein of chert about 15 feet below the natural surface of the ground. By nature a curious man, the operator halted the chugging World War II surplus machine and jumped down from the track to get a better look at the bones. There were a dozen or so fragments in sight, one obviously a backbone, and they certainly looked old. Who knew what others were yet to be revealed in the embankment? With plenty of other gravel to work, the tractor driver decided to move beyond the bone place and work in a different area. Details of what happened next have faded like the old cypress tenant shacks just down the hill from the quarry, but in some fashion the “experts” were notified and a geology professor from LSU with students in tow showed up to excavate the site. They gathered up leg bones, arm bones, foot and ankle bones, part of a shoulder blade, and five vertebrae. Back at the university they were cleaned up a bit, packaged up, and shipped off to the U.S. National Museum for identification. Meanwhile, someone, somewhere ascertained the trove to be the remains of a robust-boned Neanderthal, and the newspapers ran with it.
There were, however, problems from the beginning for those who burdened their consciences with facts. Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia, never in North America. They were not ancestors of modern humans but rather likely a separate species within our genus Homo (and as we now know in most of our ancestral bloodlines). And the average height of males was almost exactly half the fabled eleven-footers. When the verdict came down from the National Museum, some folks were disappointed. It was only a common black bear, albeit a very old one. As for the newspapers they were galloping toward new stories with no time to make right old ones. ©KO